Coming straight from a - it has to be said - magical visit to the Dinas hill fort to the (approx) east... featuring enigmatic warrior burial and glorious views... Pen-y-Castell might well have proved an anti-climax, a disappointment. That it is nothing of the sort could mean I'm easily pleased; or that Pen-y-Castell is simply a great site in its own right? Needless to say this is no doubt a rhetorical question... utterly subjective. For what it's worth, however, I reckon the latter option holds sway.
For one thing there is no direct comparison between the landscape context of the two sites. Not at all. Passing the llynnau of Blaenmelindwr and Pendam along the Penrhyn-coch road from Ponterwyd, I park up opposite the dwelling of Bryn-goleu. My (library sale) OS map helps, but is not conclusive... I decide the public footpath heading downhill to the left is a better bet than the unmade vehicular track. The thought occurs..... 'why am I heading down hill to a hillfort?' Surely this can't be right? I guess the question is valid at the time. However in short order the hill fort is visible below, rising above the 'Rheidol Study Centre' through a break in the forestry. I'm reminded somewhat of Exmoor's wondrous Cow Castle. Ok, this isn't in the same league, but then again... what is?
The soggy footpath directs me to tarmac and hence a path following the left hand bank of a small lake, the hill fort rising upon a hill.... funnily enough.... to my left. Ignore the initial gate unless you have fingers of steel - I can not for the life of me open it and am aware that people at the 'Study Centre' may well be 'studying me' - since there is an 'official' entrance a little further along. The ramparts are but a short climb away, an apparently prehistoric monolith yours for the visiting en-route, if that's your bag.
The setting of the enclosure is sublime, if not as dramatic as the previously mentioned Dinas, with an excellent, open panorama to the west contrasting with encircling hills to the other points of the compass. The natural defences are more than sufficient, the ground falling away sharply except to the east where, as you would expect, the main (only?) entrance is situated. The single bank is more substantial than I expected, albeit subject to significant erosion in places, damage which nevertheless affords an insight into construction techniques, as noted previously by Kammer. Another feature of the site is the presence of a number of boulders of no discernable function; I've noticed these at a number of Welsh hillforts... what were they for? Surely some genius out there has a theory? Whatever, Pen-y-Castell provides a fine, evocative hang for a few hours.
So, Pen-y-Castell solves the conundrum of 'how to follow Dinas'... by being completely different, there being no relevant criteria for comparison. Hey, I can live with that. Still, it's bloody weird ascending a steep hill on the way BACK from a hill fort to the car. Right on! I can live with that, too.
Visited 13th March 2000: After one aborted attempt last year, I finally got round to visiting Pen-y-Castell Hillfort on a lunch hour last week. The sharp winter sunlight was beautiful, but it was still very cold and windy once I got to the top.
There's loads to see up there, especially considering how insignificant the fort is compared to some of its local rivals. The ramparts and ditches are still relatively well defined, especially around the entrance to the east. Modern erosion to the ramparts gives a cut-away view of the stones that make them up, and there are a number of large boulders within the boundaries of the fort that must have served some purpose when it was in use (it's unlikely that they've been lugged up there since).
The most interesting stone that appears to be part of the original fort stand on the north side of the main entrance, where there is a break in the defensive ditch. I found myself wondering whether it represents the remains of a defensive wall, or possibly the Iron Age equivalent of a kerb stone protecting wooden defensive walls from wear and tear.
As I descended the hill and made my way back to the car there were two F15 fighter planes circling overhead, presumably practising for the real thing in Iraq. I pondered the stupidity of it all, and how far mankind (I use this term intentionally) has come since the simple Iron Age defences of Pen-y-Castell. It took the edge off of an otherwise beautiful visit.