|Leaving the broad plain of the Conwy Valley, lanes wind steadily upwards, bound tight by stone walls and occasionally gated against errant stock.
The blunt form of Pen-y-Gaer (Caerhun) rises steep on the right, but that will wait for another day. Today we head towards the lower slopes of Tal y Fan, a mountain separated from the massive bulk of Y Carneddau by an upland pass. The pass was used by the Romans, but its name and origins are much older – Bwlch y Ddeufaen (“Pass of the Two Stones”). The sites we’ve come to see today line the track that heads east from the pass, contouring the southern flank of the mountain. They come in a rich profusion, an elongated string of megalithic jewels, in a concentration to rival any you might find in West Cornwall or North-east Scotland.
It’s always exciting to start the day with a stone circle, especially one you’ve not been to before. Composed of diminutive stones, Cerrig Pryfaid is certainly no Avebury in purely megalithic terms. But the setting elevates it to something quite special.
The near-perfect circle sits in an amphitheatre of rock, broken only to the southeast where Pen y Gaer overlooks the wide sweep of the fertile Conwy Valley. Even here the longer view is filled with rank upon rank of high hills. The southwestern prospect is entirely blocked by the towering wall of the Carneddau mountains, crowned by Bronze Age cairns on the summits of Carnedd y Ddelw
. To the north Foel Lwyd, the western buttress of the Tal y Fan ridge, rises in a jagged jumble of boulders and outcrops.
Two small outliers stand to the west of the circle, both with tantalising sunrise alignments (midwinter, autumn equinox). But today it’s getting towards midday, in July. So we make do with the earthlier delights of the landscape and views before heading back towards the Pass and our next site.
From stone circle to cairn. Barclodiad y Gawres is a good size (15-20m irregular diameter), composed of large cobbles with a central scoop. It’s dotted here and there with clumps of stonecrop, the pink-white five pointed flowers a splash of summer brightness against the grey stones. We entirely fail to see the cist, or either of the other cairns that are supposedly close by. A little way to the southeast we come across a small arrangement of stones, which look like they’ve been placed deliberately but not as anything obviously identifiable. Blossom’s dogs find nice big boulders to stand on and survey the area.
The visual focus is the prominent Bwlch-y-Ddeufaen
standing stones, visible from here, nestled in the v-shaped pass between the ridges of the Carneddau and Foel Lwyd. The flanking pylons fail to detract from the setting, despite their best efforts.
Elsewhere this cairn would be worth a proper stop, but here it’s probably the least arresting of the day’s sites. And we can see the next one already, so it’s time to head off.
The two stones that give the pass its name are a big step up in size from the ankle biters of Cerrig Pryfaid
. Both are taller than me, and there’s some serious girth going on too. The tapering southern stone is a beauty, Blossom and I struggle to reach round it with our combined outstretched arms. There’s a small, shallow drill hole on one side, as if someone foolishly attempted to convert this into a gatepost and was struck dead for their temerity before getting very far. I’ll leave Rhiannon to find some suitably doomy folkore to confirm the point.
By contrast, the northern stone is flat-topped and appears to shine out its whiteness against the dark heather. On closer inspection, the whiteness is entirely illusory, the stone isn’t quartz at all but a light grey. There are two further, shorter uprights close to the northern stone, one of which is indeed a quartzy rock. Their placement isn’t obvious but reminds me somewhat of a scaled-up version of the little followers of Maen Mawr in South Wales. In amongst the chocks at the base of the northern stone is one very dark rock, a matt coal black in colour. It’s not clear whether this is a later addition as it doesn’t seem to be doing much chocking.
We don’t realise that there’s a fan of much smaller uprights close to the southern stone, and in truth a visit in summer vegetation isn’t the best time to look for them. It is a great time to admire the purple flowers adorning the heather though.
Once again, the setting is excellent. The views are similar to those from Cerrig Pryfaid, but with added elevation giving a fresh perspective to the outcrops of Pen y Castell. The stones are not set on the crest of the pass, so there’s no view northwards to speak of. Instead they turn their impassive faces resolutely southeast, looking down the valley of the Tafalog, heading off to join the great Afon Conwy three or four miles away. Surrounded now by pylons and cables, yet they retain their dignity against these huge, transitory metal giants. Time is on their side after all.
I’m really taken with these stones. The sense of deep time seems to hang around them, from the ageless mountains, through the monument builders, the tramp of Roman soldiers, into a hinterland of iron and wire. Rather than detracting, the pylons add to this sense that we’re standing in the midst of a palimpsest, layers of time and people still there, just below the surface. And perhaps we’re a shadowy presence in earlier and later times, too.
Reluctantly we head back to the car for a very short trip eastwards. It’s blue skies and sunshine as we get out again a mile on. The ribbon of sites continues on along the southern flank of Tal y Fan, a mountain almost completely encircled by cairns, standing stones, burial chambers and stone circles, yet itself devoid of monuments. Surely a deliberate omission?
Cae Coch standing stone is first, just a short pull up a bracken and grass covered slope from the track. It’s one of those eternally pleasing stones with a completely different aspect depending on which side you view it from. The broad face is turned towards the track and is perpendicular to Pen-y-Gaer (Caerhun)
hillfort, but side-on the profile is slender with a bend in the middle. The views across the Conwy valley are worth the visit alone. An unexpectedly good site.
As we approached the stone the blue sky had turned unexpectedly dark, and now looks like night has arrived early. It rains, just for a moment. And then it’s gone, so that by the time we regain the track much of the blue has returned.
Even the track feels ancient, a deep green channel between collapsing drystone walls enlivened by vibrant purple foxgloves at this time of year. We pass Ffon-y-cawr
, leaning crazily on the other side of the wall. Another one to save for a proper visit, because from here we can see the main objective for today.
Maen-y-Bardd is at once bigger and smaller than I expected it to be. It’s perfectly proportioned and looks out over the wide valley of Afon Conwy, the river itself winding lazily through the centre. And there are mountains, and hills, and little fields, and a huge cloud-filled sky. What a place.
“Stone out of song” goes a poem I hold very close to my heart. But did the song come first, or the stone? Was a bard buried here, or did the place make poets of its visitors?
We stop for a good while. Even the dogs seem content to sit here.
At length an interruption comes in the form of a farmer in his tractor, cutting the bracken in the field next door. The spell is broken. We head uphill.
Climbing directly up the grassy slopes of Tal y Fan’s southern flank, we pass a ruined homestead and regain a proper path. The map shows some cairns here, but we fail to see anything obvious. [Postie’s subsequent visit shows we weren’t missing much.]
Caer Bach now rises in front of us, flat-topped and dotted with gorse. Just before we get there, we come across a very strange “structure”, consisting of a huge oval boulder apparently placed over some supporting stones to form a small open-fronted chamber, which appears to have been lined with smaller stones. It looks constructed rather than natural, but what it is we have no idea. There’s so much going on in this area that it’s difficult not to imagine it having some significance.
Tal-y-Fan’s summit, crossed by a typically improbable drystone wall, now looms directly above us. It looks almost within touching distance from here, but it’s not on the menu today. Instead we head for the fort. The earthworks aren’t the most impressive, but as with every other place we’ve been today the setting is superb. The views extend to Pen-y-Gaer (Caerhun)
, so whether the occupants were friend or foe they were certainly observable. It’s a neat and compact site, feeling quite sheltered in the lea of the mountain’s flank, despite its lofty position.
We have a belated lunch, overlooking the Conwy valley. The lonely mountain watches over it all, serene within its encirclement of prehistoric riches. One day I’ll climb it, but today it’s enough to rest in its shelter for a while. The poet dreams on, of the song, and of the stone.