To the north of here the map shows an enormous expanse of quarry, so my route cuts directly east up the slopes of Cefn yr Ystrad. This proves to be much harder going, the grass masking lumps and bumps of limestone and hollows that could turn an ankle with ease. I'm relieved to reach the ridge and even more relieved to see the day's main objective, the enormous bronze age cairn of Carn y Bugail ("Cairn of the Shepherd"). It's still some way off, and the intervening terrain is not the easiest to cross. What looks like a smooth grassy plateau actually takes a tiring 10 minutes of route-picking and step-watching even in this dry weather.
But the effort is entirely justified. The OS map shows two named cairns here, but our friends at Coflein are not content with that and have added another two. The named cairns are the real beauties, despite the efforts of many visitors to hollow out their interiors. Carn y Bugail has been moulded into a rather peculiar shape, two piles of stones heaped up on top of the mound giving it an oddly horned shape, like a toad or lizard. Despite this, it's a huge cairn, 3m high, as big as any I've visited and boasting terrific views to the central Beacons and across to the Black Mountains to the northeast. The view north is blocked by the equally massive Garn Felen. ("The Yellow Cairn") and the prominent mound that Garn Felen III sits atop, forming the end of the summit ridge. Beyond that Waun Rydd fades into the deepening haze as midday approaches. To the immediate northeast of Carn y Bugail are a collection of enormous (presumably natural) limestone blocks that form the outer extent of the cairn.
To the east of Garn Felen is a small pyramidal modern cairn, with a wooden cross set into its top. This monument to the crew of a Wellington bomber, marked in Gladman's fieldnotes, is indeed poignant. Even more so when you see that small fragments of twisted and melted aluminium surround the base of the cairn, the remains of the plane itself. Cause to stop a while. Despite the sadness of such a sight, there are worse places to be remembered. And remembered the fallen airmen obviously still are.
Garn Felen cairn is a match for Carn y Bugail in size. The top has been similarly scooped, but without the pointy rebuild. It remains a seriously impressive monument though, the plentiful limestone scattered all over the mountain's top being an easy source for such a monster. From here the obvious focal point is actually Garn Felen III and the Waun Rydd summit beyond, with a deep valley in between. So it's to Garn Felen III that I head next.
The obvious cairn here is a small, pointy, modern thing, but it sits on a great rounded mound of limestone blocks that forms the northern end of the long summit ridge. Coflein has recognised this for another bronze age cairn, although the OS don't mark it. Beyond, the ground falls steeply away, to a lower shelf where Garn Felen enclosure is visible. The landscape below the cairn is a weird, pock-marked sea of natural sink holes and possibly some human intrusion, like a turf-skinned holey cheese. The bigger scarring of the modern quarry is just visible over the ridge beyond.
I head back across to the SW to the summit trig point. I think this marks the highest point of the mountain, but the substantial nature of the main cairns means that they may rise above it. The trig has been well placed for the better sight-lines over to the west though. From here the three big cairns are laid out in profile, and what an impressive trio they make. Interestingly there is a flattened, circular patch of limestone blocks surrounding the trig. Could this be the remnants of yet another cairn? It certainly seems possible, although the Uplands Survey recorded the trig pillar but didn't comment on this in doing so.
Looking westwards, the ground drops away into a little cwm. On the slope opposite are the remains of Garn Felen II, a shattered cairn in a slightly odd situation. All that remains is a turfed over doughnut, with a scatter of exposed limestone blocks on the downslope side, the whole thing perched halfway down the slope. Compared to the other three cairns it is slight and has no impressive views either to or from it (although the prominent bump of Garn Felen III is in clear view). But it does make for a nice sheltered spot to sit and contemplate the minds of the people who came to this exposed, rugged mountain top millennia ago. They left behind monuments that survive so well and I'm sure they would be pleased to know that the places still exerts such a pull on this visitor.
It has to be said that I'm not the most enthusiastic early riser. And to do so at 7.30am on a freezing cold Boxing Day morning would probably be beyond the call of duty... if the potential prize wasn't a visit to a couple of Wales' finest cairns. Sadly the Mam Cymru stays behind to tend to her infant grand daughter. Some things are indeed more important, aren't they?
So, with this incentive I head along the M4, resisting the urge to take the turn-off to Barry Island - in homage to last night's 'Gavin and Stacy' - and veer up the A470 beneath Garth Hill's barrows (must visit these one day) towards dear old Merthyr Tudful, hence Tredegar. Here a minor road leaves the A465 to ascend the Sirhowy Valley towards the hamlet of Trefil. This is an industrial landscape, and not a pretty sight, it has to be said.... particularly if you once made your livelihood here (check out a rather poignant song by South Walian comedian Max Boyce about this valley if you can). The road continues, to terminate at the quarries above Dyffryn Crawnor, but I don't make the full distance due to ice [a particular Gladman fear], parking a little way short. From here the 2,025ft summit is a little under 2 miles to the approx south-west.
The landscape, cloaked in a mantle of white, is the epitome of 'the bleak Midwinter', the snow masking numerous springs waiting to snare the unwary traveller. Cresting the initial ridge, the summit of the mountain is visible beyond, a relatively simple walk in clear conditions, I'd have thought, but quite a trek in deep snow today.
It is worth the effort. The twin Bronze Age cairns of Garn Felen and Carn y Bugail tower above the hostile landscape a small distance to the east of the summit OS trig point...and it seems to me incredible that monuments this size could still remain upon the over-trampled Brecon Beacons. Initially, however, it is a monument of much more recent times - and modest construction - that fair brings a lump to my throat and very nearly a tear to my eye. A little way below Garn Felen stands a small cairn dedicated to the crew of a RAF Wellington bomber (T2520 from 115 Squadron, RAF Marham, Norfolk) which crashed here on 9/12/40 returning from active operations. There were no survivors. It exudes a poignancy beyond words, all the more so because of numerous poppies adorning the cairn, one annotated 'from a friend'. See, some people DO still care.
The Bronze Age equivalents crown the skyline above and are real beauties. Outside of Pumlumon, perhaps only the Carnau 'r Garreg Las (upon western Mynydd Du) compare in my experience. Filled with snow, they are superb viewpoints for the cloud-wreathed main Brecon Beacons massif across the valley and the distant Black Mountains. Although nominally simply massive piles of stones, they clearly represent much, much more.
Mist sweeps in to periodically engulf the summit, the giant cairns looming claustrophobically through the swirling, ethereal vapour - note that this is no place to be without a compass and the ability to use it. It is perhaps at times like this that Cefn Yr Ystrad is at its most evocative. It certainly has me in thrall today.
As well as the two massive cairns, there are two other possible BA cairns on on near the summit of Cefn yr Ystrad ("Ridge of the Vale"?). Coflein descriptions:
Garn Felen III (SO0882513838)
A scatter of stones 7m diameter which may be the base of a cairn. On top is a cone-shaped rock pile, base diameter 1.5m and 1.5m high, probably a much later clearance cairn. In a very prominent location, with steep drop and view to N.
Garn Felen II (SO0854513843)
Located on a slope. Outer ring of rubble stone, 6-8m diameter, on all sides except uphill. In the centre is a conical mound 2.5m across and 1m high, probably the result of later clearance.
The surrounding area is rich in prehistoric archaeology...
1) an Iron Age settlement on the south western flank of Buarth y Caerau at approx SO069135
2) a potential Bronze Age cairn in Cwm Criban at SO0734313320
3) another cairn upon Twynau Gwynion [SO07681227] to the approx south-west.
Two massive Bronze Age burial cairns are located at the 2,025ft summit of Cefn yr Ystrad, eastern sentinel of The Brecon Beacons. According to Coflein they are
Garn Felen (SO0885613724)
'Located on a promontary. A mound of limestone rubble with some conglomerate, 15m in diameter and 2m high. Depression in centre of top surface, possibly where it was robbed or excavated'.
'...is a massive round cairn, approx 15m diameter and up to 3m high. The top surface is irregular, having been partly robbed out. The apparent boulder kerbing to the northeast-east may be natural outcropping...'.