Like Gladman before me, my previous trip to the summits of Radnor mountains had neglected the shapely, but sub-2,000ft Whimble. In truth, my previous trip in thick, dank mist had been something of a nightmare of zero-visibility and soaking wet feet. I’m hoping for a contrast today, so I’m relieved that as the bus drops me in New Radnor, the skies are blue if rather hazy.
The lack of car precludes me from following Gladman’s advice and so I have to start off with the steep “road-bashing” of his warning, taking a minor road north out of the town. In truth, the firm surface provides a nice easy way to gain some rapid height. I pass a couple of walkers on the road, as they stop to remove outer layers – despite the single-figure temperature, it’s soon warm once you get going on the uphill. At the gate where the road stops, I pause to do the same and shed my coat.
The long months since I discovered that I had torn my hamstring badly on Moel Eilio last year have been seriously frustrating, even climbing a couple of flights of stairs had been a strain. As such, I feel immensely relieved to have made the first couple of hundred metres of ascent without problem. From the gate, a bridleway continues the climb, more gently now, around the western edge of the forestry that clothes the southern slopes of the Whimble.
Sheep and Spring lambs are the only company and pretty soon a fine view has opened up along the steep-sided valley of Summergill Brook to the southwest. Rank after rank of hills line up to the horizon, fading gently into blue on this hazy day. I realise that the views won’t be extensive in a haze more reminiscent of a summer’s outing, but to be out in the sunshine on these hills provides more than ample pleasure.
The bridleway is easy walking and after a while a flat-topped expanse appears to the northwest – this is Great Rhos, the highest part of the mountains and a top that I had to navigate across by relying on compass and contour alone. No such trouble today, it’s nice to finally see what I missed before. Directly ahead of me is Great Creigiau, the southern part of Black Mixen, underpinned by steep cliffs falling away into the valley below. It’s quiet enough to hear the tumbling water down in that narrow channel. This is what I’ve been missing these last months, away from the solitude of the lonely hillside.
Then, through the thinning trees to my right, as if conjured from nowhere by powerful magic, the conical shape of the Whimble appears. The path continues northwest, but a smaller, much-used trail heads off to the foot of the hill. I’m suddenly overawed by the steepness of the climb ahead, although it’s less than 100m of vertical ascent from where I am now. I briefly weigh up how my leg feels against the steep hillside, but this is what I’ve come for and the urge to go on far outweighs any concern now. I take the climb steadily, one foot in front (above) the other. When the summit approach comes, a deep sense of joy comes too. I’ve made it! It’s not the biggest hill in the world, but after a winter wondering if I’d get up in the mountains again, the feeling of relief is overwhelming.
Also overwhelming is the view from the top, even with the haze. The hill drops away steeply on all sides. Away to the southeast is Hergest Ridge and on a clearer day the Black Mountains would be visible to the south. To the west and north the higher, flat-topped summits of the range cut off the longer view, but the intervening valleys are far below and steep-sided, providing plenty of visual interest. To the northeast, Bache Hill is the focal point, topped irresistibly with a line of prominent round barrows that I will hopefully visit later.
And then there’s the summit barrow, a fine, turfed-over specimen with a flat top. About half a metre below the top, the sides of the barrow are stepped-in. Coflein states this to be a later cairn placed on top of the round barrow, although it doesn’t say how much later. But for all the world, this wonderful, conical proto-Silbury seems topped with its own mini-Silbury barrow.
To all those people who cause endless debate by climbing Silbury, why bother? Come here, to quiet of the Radnor Mountains and climb a proper sacred hill instead. Sky gods, earth goddess, if such beings exist, then this is the place to commune with them. No man-made vanity project striving and failing to reach up to the heavens, this beautiful, shapely hill is the real thing, the focal point of Radnor’s sleeping goddess. It has the power to remind me how small I am, a tiny speck of dust in the infinity of nature, yet so alive and ecstatic too. I live for places like this, days like this, when mundane cares are so far below and there’s only the sky, the wind, the hills.
I stay as long as my body temperature allows, for it’s cold up here in March, even in the sunshine. My route onwards is to the east, where the hill is at its most gentle, sloping down a wide grass strip to the bwlch below. Here I meet two riders, the last people I will see in the hills today, apart from distant stick figures on Black Mixen. A bridleway heads northwards. Neatly bisecting the twin summits of Bache Hill, the path crosses the saddle between the two. To the northeast is the main summit, where I went in the mist last time I was up here, together with the low remains of an intervening barrow. But I have unfinished business with the south-western summit, above Whinyard Rocks, to get better acquainted with the two prominent barrows here.
A narrow sheep track winds in the general direction, so I take that to avoid the worst of the heather that clothes this hillside. The Whimble comes into view straight ahead, a reminder of the shapeliness of its curves. But the track doesn’t head to the barrows and I’m forced to take to the heather after all. A summer visit would be tough and my dodgy leg doesn’t enjoy the motion of stepping over the vegetation very much. But the barrows are worth it, especially the fine south-western example (Winyard Rocks I), placed perfectly for views of the Whimble and of the other Bache Hill barrows to the northeast. The other barrow (Whinyard Rocks II) is smaller, or more reduced, but placed so that nearly all of the barrows in the group are visible from it.
Back across the tiresome heather to the saddle. The next barrow (Bache Hill III) is visible in the grassy field beyond, it appears to have been much-reduced by erosion (ploughing?) and has no cover of heather to keep it warm. Of all the barrows in the group it is the least impressive, but still boasts a wonderful location. The Bache Hill summit barrows are not visible from it, but the Whimble and the Whinyard Rocks barrows all are. [Incidentally, this is the only barrow of the five on Bache Hill that is not on access land, although a stile gives easy entrance into the field from the bridleway to the southwest.]
The final walk to the summit of Bache Hill is easy from here, and I’m elated to be back on top of a mountain after such a long absence. Previous fieldnotes extol the virtues of the summit barrow, so I’ll just add that this is one of the finest round barrows I’ve visited in Mid-Wales – if not the finest. Good spot for lunch too, with back against the trig point and Radnorshire spread out in patchwork below.
After a quick revisit of the final barrow, at the eastern end of the arcing group, I bid farewell and start the long descent off the hills via Stanlo Tump. The last time I was here, I was pleased and surprised to see Titterstone Clee away to the northeast. Today the haze prevents any such revelations, but in the interim G/F and I have walked close by along Offa’s Dyke, so now I have the pleasure of recognising Castle Ring, Beggar’s Bush, the approximate position of the Cwmade Barrow and the wonderful Burfa Bank hillfort. Another bit of jigsaw slots into place.
Some landscapes are iconic, taking the breath away through sheer force of imagery sent cascading along the optic nerve, a tidal wave of electrical impulses temporarily 'short circuiting' the brain. The appeal of others, however, is not so direct, less obvious, more subtle; dependent upon the non-visual complement of senses available to us humans but, arguably, woefully underemployed nowadays. In my opinion The Radnor Forest falls into this latter category. Set within a border 'no man's land' north of The Black Mountains, there is to my mind a real sense of inherent insularity to be found here... local hills reserved for local people, so to speak. Perhaps this has something to do with knowledge of an MOD rifle range located within Harley Dingle, the deep valley driving a north-south cleft through the very heart of these mountains? Perhaps.... but I reckon there is more to it than that, something that can only be provisionally understood by donning the boots and venturing into the 'mists', preferably not the literal kind of course.
New Radnor is key to an attempt to further your knowledge of these uplands, an attractive village still retaining remnants of medieval earthwork defences, not least a substantial Norman motte and bailey castle, the sort of place I (almost) wish I didn't have to disturb with my presence. From Water Street turn right onto the B4372 and then immediately left to ascend a minor road past the aforementioned castle. I park up a little beyond at the entrance to an old quarry... in my ignorance. In retrospect - as long as your car is happy enough with steep inclines - I'd recommend carrying on to park in a forestry car park at the road's terminus. Yeah, save yourself a very steep bit of road bashing at the start. Just prior to the forestry a sunken bridleway heads left, subsequently veering to the right (north) to ascend the tree line. The retrospective and western views become more expansive with every (laboured) step, but it is that which eventually materialises through foliage to the east that I've primarily returned here to see.... a veritable 'Silbury-esque' natural cone whimsically called 'Whimble'. How good a name is that? Marvellous. The 'Silbury' analogy is valid only to a point, however, since Whimble is much, much larger, rising to as near as dammit 600m at 1,965ft. In addition it's what lies on top - rather than what lies within (if anything) - that is of interest here..... a stonking big, grassy round barrow.
The climb to the summit of Whimble is not overly taxing, relatively speaking, from either the west or, in particular, the north-east. Sadly the summit ridge is not of uniform profile being much disturbed by quarrying, although Coflein nevertheless cites a possible enclosure here. Fortunately, however, the round barrow remains very much in existence. Coflein gives the monument's dimensions as being '19m in diameter and 1.2m high.... a more recent cairn, 11m in diameter and 0.6m high, superimposed upon it [(source Os495card; SO26SW14) J.Wiles 14.10.04]'. To be fair it seemed much more substantial when on site.... perhaps the scale image I've added is more conclusive? What is not in doubt, however, is the sublime nature of the views to be had from upon the barrow. It would be a cliche to state they are worth the effort alone, but 'if the cap fits...' Here the 'cap' happens to be a fine prehistoric monument in a more than reasonable state of preservation.
Looking west across Harley Dingle three great gulleys - The Three Riggles (right on!) - can be seen adorning the eastern face of Great Rhos, a striking landscape feature. To the north the gaze is directed across the craggy flank of Whinyard Rocks, one of the few incidences of naked rock in an area noted for its paucity, toward Bache Hill, fractionally higher at 2,001ft and boasting a much more substantial round barrow. There are other examples located upon the intervening ridge, including another of very significant proportions. To the approx north west the summit of Black Mixen is surmounted by an ugly antenna (is there any other kind?), an unwelcome companion to yet another large monument. Rest assured, there are more. To complete the picture - and at the risk of labouring the point - the fine 'Four Stones' four poster (funnily enough) lies below to the approx south east, the apparently once extensive ritual landscape in the vicinity of Walton beyond, not to mention the great Burfa Camp... and Offa's Dyke itself. South, of course, lies the eastern flank of South Wales' great escarpment. Yeah, Whimble is thus a classic spot to sit and..... just.... 'hang'. Eventually, however, I must reacquaint myself with Bache Hill and its ancient wonders. 17 years after the initial event. Is it really that long? 'fraid so.
As mentioned above, one of the barrows upon the subsiduary south-western hill remains substantial, the others, eroded away to varying degrees, extend in an arc towards the north-east.... and the main monument crowning the summit of Bache Hill itself. This is quoted by Coflein as being:
'A round barrow, 20m in diameter and 3.0m high, diched, with traces of a counterscarp. There are indications of possible excavation trenches and an Os triangulation pillar atop the mound (source Os495card; SO26SW11) RCAHMW AP965028/66 J.Wiles 09.09.02'
3m? I can well believe it. Yeah, this is truly an excellent round barrow... a real beauty in fact. To say the location is also rather good would be a bit of an understatement, too, to be fair. Owing to the topography the views it oversees are (arguably) not as dramatic as those from Whimble, but I reckon this fact is countered somewhat by the much more 'isolated' vibe to be enjoyed here... a sense of wilderness, of being in the 'middle of nowhere', neither in Wales nor England, but in some 'otherworldly' place defying adequate definition. Perhaps the cloud sweeping in, thankfully at altitude, colours my perception somewhat? Perhaps I should leave it at that? Whatever, sitting upon Bache Hill's summit is a good place to be.
I return to the car via the western flank of the mountain, the gaping void of Harley Dingle a sight to behold, what with Whimble towering above it to the left. I reach the car at dusk. Out of time, the forestry car park seems an appropriate place to spend the night. Indeed it does.
To my south, barrows appear on the top the Whimble and the western summit of Bache Hill. By now I'm too tired to leave my main route and visit them, so they'll have to wait for another day. But the summit of Bache Hill itself now looms ahead, just a matter of climbing the grassy field and I'm there. The barrow here is magnificent. Much larger than the Black Mixen barrow, although similarly topped with a trig pillar, this is as fine a specimen of a round barrow as you could hope to find, especially on top of a Welsh mountain.
I collapse at the barrow, wring my socks again, have some lunch. As I sit, the surrounding gloom begins to lift properly, revealing an astonishing view to the south. First of all, patchwork fields emerge across the farmland below, finally acknowledging the elevation attained up here. Then, much further south, a black ridge of hills becomes visible: the Black Mountains escarpment. As the sharp profile of Mynydd Troed clears, I have an warming sense of place, with another piece slotted home into my Welsh jigsaw. I must come here again, when the views are clearer and my feet are drier. But in some ways the all-covering mists, giving way to a tease and a slow reveal, has heightened the satisfaction of making it up here.
There is a further barrow to the east of the main one, less impressive in itself but perfectly situated on the edge of the summit ridge overlooking the farmland below.
There are six barrows set in a curving line from the summit of the Whimble at the southwest to the summit ridge of Bache Hill to the northeast. All are intervisible with some (but not all) of the others. The barrows are situated on or just below the 2,000ft contour. Some cemetery!
Coflein descriptions (J. Wiles 2002-2004), SW-NE:
Whimble barrow (SO20516263)
The barrow, 19m in diameter and 1.2m high, is set upon Wimble, a conical hill, and has a more recent cairn, 11m in diameter and 0.6m high, superimposed upon it.
Whinyard Rocks barrow I (SO20786312)
One of a pair of barrows, 19m in diameter and 1.6m high.
Whinyard Rocks barrow II (SO20846317)
One of a pair of barrows, 14.5m in diameter and 1.2m high.
Bache Hill barrow III (SO21126343)
A barrow, 10m in diameter and 0.5m high.
Bache Hill barrow I (SO21396365)
A round barrow, 20m in diameter and 3.0m high, diched, with traces of a counterscarp. There are indications of possible excavation trenches and an OS triangulation pillar atop the mound.
Alfred Watkins thought Bache Hill was on a ley going through the Four Stones:
The second ley [through the stones] starts from Bach Hill (one of the highest parts of the Radnor Forest); through the Four Stones, dead on main road through Walton village, dead on main road past Eccles Green, through Upperton Farm and Kenchester Church, and dead on the present road which is the S.W. boundary of the Roman station of Magna; then going over the Wye through Breinton Church.