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Mendip First - 2 April 2016
It’s six o’clock in the morning, and I’m the only person in this house that’s awake. My bag is packed and ready for a trip over the mountaintops of South Wales, but the forecast is looking uninspiring. Rain until early afternoon, which suggests little enjoyment for most of my walking window. Widen the forecast out though, and it looks like sunshine galore to the southwest. Hmmm.
A quick burst of complete replanning, frantic printing of different bus timetables and I’m off to Bristol to catch the “Mendips Explorer” and head into an area I’ve never been to before. A look at the Cheddar Gorge and Mendips West map opens up a huge amount of possible destinations, barrows seem to ooze from every km square around here. There’s also a decent amount of open access land, which promises a day free of the irritations of blocked paths and muddy farmland.
The bus climbs out of Bristol, offering a view of Maes Knoll before passing the Stanton Drew turning. I’m tempted, but not enough. The Priddy complex is only a couple of miles west as well, but I’m not in the mood for farms today. One connection later and I’m heading through Cheddar to a little strung-out hamlet called Sandford Batch, not quite on the hills but not right down in the low-lying vale either. A path heads eastwards into community woodland, scarred by quarrying and with an impressive limekiln left as a visible reminder of industry.
Further east the woods open out to fields and as the path starts to descend I’m rewarded with a view of my first objective of the day, Dolebury Warren. From here it looks like short climb, but my route drops right down into Dolebury Bottom gorge first, adding significantly to the amount of the steep ascent. The overcast morning is slowly starting to lift, so I shed my coat and fleece before starting on the uphill.
The approach is through woods, climbing fairly sharply although not quite taking the direct route up the scarp. I’m anticipating a slog but in fact the ramparts come into sight pretty quickly – after spending so much time in the Welsh uplands it’s easy to forget that the hills here are not very big, for all that they’re very steep-sided. The sun starts to break through as I reach the western entrance.
It’s immediately apparent that this is a first rate hillfort in great preservation. There are two lines of ramparts, the inner one much higher than the outer and built of stone blocks. The western entrance is at the lowest part of the fort, which continues to climb steeply towards the top of the hill a good 30 metres higher than where I’m standing. The banks are inturned and the entrance appears to be an original one.
I follow the rampart along its northern side, steadily climbing as it goes. The fetish for building shelters that has damaged so many Bronze Age summit cairns is in evidence here too, with the plentiful stone of the rampart obviously being too difficult to resist messing about. Actually, it’s a pretty windswept place. Although the sun is now out, when it occasionally dips behind ragged cloud there’s a serious chill and I’m quickly reminded that it’s still early in the year to be wandering around a hillfort in a t-shirt.
As the rampart climbs, the views open out wonderfully in every direction but east. The Severn is the main event, looking towards Steep Holm and Flat Holm islands that we got familiar with walking the coast path on the opposite side. I also recognise Brean Down
and assume the urban sprawl to be Weston-super-Mare. Almost due west a wooded hill with open interior is the neighbouring Banwell Plain hillfort.
The ditch between the ramparts is overgrown in places, but there is obviously regular clearance of scrub going on. A couple of dog walkers and a couple of walkers are dotted around the fort, but it’s a big place and there’s no sense of intrusion. Reaching the very top of the fort there’s another entrance facing east, also looking like it’s probably original. The views are now magnificent, right across to South Wales – if the cloud and rain lifted there, I’ve no doubt the Brecon Beacons would be readily visible. To the south the high ridge of the Mendips blocks the view, open moorland that will be my next objective once I leave here.
But first there’s the southern circuit and interior. On the south side the rampart is less built-up, but the reasoning is obvious as the ground falls very steeply away to a lovely wooded gorge below. Rowberrow church is visible across the ravine, and in a field beyond there is a sizeable round barrow that just manages to be obscured by trees no matter where I stand on the rampart. I head back up into the fort’s interior, which is heavily scarred and pitted. The fort’s name gives the reason away, as it was the site of a huge artificial rabbit warren in the 17th century. At the highest part of the interior, just inside the eastern entrance, there is a low curving linear feature with a square structure inside. This was apparently the garden wall and footings of the warren-keeper’s house. I wonder what it must have been like to live here, surrounded by rabbits and the ghosts of the original inhabitants. Whatever, it makes a great spot for an early lunch before heading east.
A final touch as I leave is the way Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel is framed by the eastern entrance. What a great place this is. I reluctantly turn away, hugely impressed by this great fort with its sweeping views.
To the southeast, the route drops gently towards the upper end of a valley. On the other side is a dense conifer forest that wouldn’t be out of place above the South Wales valleys. Somewhere over there the OS map shows a pair of cairns, which I’m intending to call in on before climbing onto the main Mendips ridge. The first thing that stands out is a large area of felling – the cairns are somewhere in it, which will either make them easy to find or impossible.
Luckily there’s not a huge amount of height loss to cross the valley at its head. Bridleways head off in several directions – to get to the first cairn I take the one heading west then a fork to the southwest, which slopes gently uphill into the felled area. The map shows the cairn at a bend in the track, right in the heart of the felling. I could be back in the Welsh forests here. Forestry clearance is a messy business, often leaving deeps ruts from the machinery and then a burst of vegetation as the tree covers disappears. This is no exception. I find the cairn right by the track, hidden at first glance by the high verges pushed up by logging vehicles. It’s in a sorry state, the edge has been damaged by the felling operation and it’s covered in a tangle of brambles and bracken. The only redeeming feature is a single silver birch, left to grow on the western side of the mound.
Once over the pitiful state of the immediate surroundings though, the location can be appreciated. The cairn looks down the steep-sided valley between Dolebury Warren
to the north and the high Mendips ridge to the south. As with many of the upland cairns of South Wales, there seems to be a definite relationship between watercourses and the placing of these Bronze Age funerary monuments.
I head back the way I’ve come to the junction of paths. The second cairn is also in a felled area, this time a narrow triangle of land between tracks. The OS map shows it as right next to a bridleway heading onto Black Down
. Unfortunately the felling here has left behind a deep tangle of bracken and water-filled ruts and ridges. I head uphill, but the track seems to follow a slightly different route to the map and after a while of fruitless prodding about in the bracken and tree stumps I reluctantly abandon the search. I’m sure it’s still here somewhere, but I won’t be the one to find it this time.
Before heading on to the open moorland, the map offers one more site: Read’s Cavern. Heading ESE from the junction of paths, the track follows the course of the stream, soon opening onto a small clearing with a seat. The cavern lies immediately to the north, where the fast-running waters, cold and crystal clear, disappear into the side of the hill. The cave appears to be accessible, but only if you’re prepared for a proper caving expedition. The limestone rocks around the entrance are liberally decorated with fossils of sea-creatures from impossibly distant epochs of time.
The entrance is very small and the water pouring in suggests an instant soaking. A sign fixed to the rockface above gives an emergency call-out number in case of difficulties. I’m not equipped either mentally or physically to go pot-holing on this trip, so I sit near the entrance for a while and watch the splash and sparkle of the water.
There are more barrows shown to the northeast, as well as another cave called Aveline’s Hole. I pass various deep sinkholes, glorying in the names Bos Swallet and Rod’s Pot. Some of these are huge scoops in the ground. As the path gives way to a metalled road, a proper look at the map shows Aveline’s Hole is actually on the other side of a steep gorge, so I reluctantly abandon any idea of a visit today. There are however three barrows (the OS shows one cairn and two tumuli) in an open area of common below the northern slopes of the moorland proper.
This area is deep with the brown stalks of last year’s bracken, which makes barrow hunting somewhat difficult, although not as much as it would be on a summer visit.
I start off looking for the cairn, the northern of the three monuments on the map. After foolishly hacking my way into and back out of a briar patch thinking it was the barrow, I realise that it’s actually a very prominent feature crowned with a stand of silver birch trees. On closer inspection it’s a beauty, lots of stonework and an crisp footprint (although no kerb as such). The trees are no doubt causing damage but enhance the atmosphere immensely, especially as the sun at its zenith is now beating down through a cloudless blue sky. Something of an unexpected highlight, and definitely worth the visit.
Heading south the other two marked barrows are less easy to find. The middle barrow is a low mound next to one of the many paths that criss-cross this open area. It’s misshapen and has hawthorn growing on it, assuming I’ve even found the right thing under all the bracken. I can’t find anything in the marked position of the southernmost barrow, although I think it’s likely to be somewhere near a single silver birch, as these trees seem to feature close to many of the barrows in this area. Either it’s deeply buried in bracken or the map has it in the wrong place.
By now I’m feeling the need to press on, with the biggest hill of the day looming ahead, so I don’t stop very long to search. It is worth pausing to look at the unfolding view of the limestone cliffs across the gorge to the north. Somewhere in that hillside is Aveline’s Hole and there appears to be a hillfort or settlement on the hilltop above it. A good reason to come back to the area anyway.
The climb up onto Black Down is not too bad, a good clear path running above West Twin Brook. The excellent views north across the Severn/Bristol Channel give plenty to admire on each pause for breath. At the top of the ridge, the path is very eroded and muddy and I’m grateful that we haven’t had huge amounts of rain recently. The top of Black Down is a sponge that would make for a challenging visit in wet conditions.
There are plenty of people up here and it’s easy to see why the main path running east-west along the top of the hill is so churned up and eroded. Unfortunately, the same is also true of the pair of barrows immediately beside the path. The northeastern one has been worn down to its stonework and is in a sorry state, crossed directly by the path. The northwestern barrow has fared slightly better than its companion, not being quite so close to the main line of the path. A sparkly slab lies on the edge of the mound, crystals catching the beautiful spring sunshine.
The erosion is a shame as these are excellent barrows, substantial and upstanding, with terrific views. I look down on a now-distant Dolebury Warren
and reflect that this walk is probably going to be a bit longer than I thought! Across the Bristol Channel, the hills and mountains of South Wales are still lying under dark clouds and I’m not in the least sorry I decided on the last minute change of plan this morning.
I head south across tussocky and damp ground to the possible third barrow in the group. This one is lower and difficult to discern under dense vegetation. So dense in fact that I startle and flush a deer from the side of the mound, watching it gracefully bound across the treacherously boggy ground.
Feeling irritated/damp I carry on to until the path leaves the open access land at the ruins of a World War Two bunker. A couple of fields later and I’m back on proper terra firma, on lanes and a farm track. I’m really close to Gorsey Bigbury henge here, just a field away. But I’m also tiring now and it’s getting on, enough to stop me from the effort of seeking permission from the farmhouse – one for another day then.
Back on the main path, the summit is obvious straight ahead. The map shows a big group of barrows and it’s coming back to me that Thelonious posted some photos a while ago. The going is not too bad as the weather has been dry, but would be horrible in wet conditions.
The first barrow (Burrington 11) is to the north of the path, another substantial mound despite erosion and probable excavation. From it the barrow that the trig pillar sits on obscures the linear group to the east.
The summit mound (Burrington 13) has obviously been resurfaced fairly recently with a new cap of stonework to protect it from erosion. This is the highest point of the Mendip hills and a fantastic viewpoint. As well as the views north and west that I’ve had for most of the day, there are now views south that take in Glastonbury Tor
as well as Exmoor away to the southwest.
It’s a well visited place as you’d expect, and while I’m here there are walkers, cyclists and horseriders at various times.
The linear barrow group (Burrington 14-16) immediately east of the summit is also cracking, with wooden signs warning visitors that it is ancient monument and to keep off to prevent erosion. I imagine that the summit barrow itself was always going to be the target for most visitors, so this seems a good way to compromise and keep the other monuments from further damage. Two more barrows (Burrington 18 and 19) lie to the south, providing an excellent spot to head away from the other people and admire the linear group profiled along the skyline.
On such a lovely day, with the wind and sun on my face, this is as good a place as I could wish to be. But by now it’s getting on for 3 o’clock, so I bid a reluctant farewell to the barrows and head east. The path has been resurfaced here and initially provides nice easy going after the boggier ridge. There is a last barrow on the south side of the path (Burrington 20) which sets me on my way downhill.
Eventually the path comes to the edge of the open access land, with fields laid out to the east and another path running north-south. Right at the junction of these paths is another barrow (Burrington 22), but it’s low and buried in heather, offering little in comparison with the group on the summit. I head north briefly to look for a final barrow (Blagdon 1). It proves to be buried under the fence line and badly eroded.
From here my path goes southwest, becoming increasingly wet and marshy. I’m soon hopping precariously from tussock to tussock, and it should come as no surprise to learn that one of the tussocks proves to be less solid than it looked. My tired legs refuse to keep me upright and I’m down on one knee, with an unpleasant feeling of cold, black water trickling into the top of my boot. Gah.
My route heads east again, passing one barrow on the map that doesn’t appear to exist anymore, a load of the cutest spring lambs you ever saw, and then the obvious mound of Rhino Rift barrow. It’s perched above the edge of a steep sided wooded ravine, which presumably is the Rhino Rift itself. The barrow is not round, rather it’s an elongated shape, higher at one end than the other. I’m not surprised to read Chance’s post that it has been considered as a possible long barrow, although it’s not that long.Another descent, this time into Black Rock gorge, which reminds me strongly of the limestone country of both the Gower and Peak District. I’m nearing the head of Cheddar Gorge now, and I’m not really sure what the pedestrian access is going to be like. It’s also getting busier, as families have come here to enjoy the beautiful spring weather. With this in mind, when I see a finger post marked “Cheddar” I decide to take it. There’s an initial steep climb into some woods, but then the horrific sight of steep steps ahead. I push myself up them, creaking and groaning at the seams now.
Finally at the top and a narrow path skirts along the north of the gorge itself, over exposed and uneven limestone. The scenery becomes spectacular, looking along the gorge through the cliffs at its end. A little stile with a sign warning of the drop gives access to a sloping grassy area right on the edge of the cliffs. The view drops straight down to the road, where miniature people and cars bustle far below. For the first time I can recall I’m vertiginous, not helped by the family of sheep of some ancient breed that scamper about the hillside around me. I beat a hasty retreat to the stile, pleased to put a wall between me and certain death. The path downhill becomes steeper and steeper and by now my feet are aching from the rough terrain. I had hoped to explore the gorge itself, but I’m exhausted now and just want to stop walking.
By the time I reach the village I’ve missed the bus and could do with having a lie down. This last section has proved to be very hard country, especially at the end of a 12 mile walk. But boy has it been rewarding. From the brilliance of Dolebury Warren, the long views of the southwest and Wales, the superb barrow cemetery on Beacon Batch and the spectacular scenery of the gorge at the end, this is definitely an area to come back to. Perhaps with a little more planning next time though. Adios Somerset.
Offa’s Dyke VIII – Four Crosses to Buttington Bridge 16.7.2011
It’s unusual for one of my walks to avoid the hills, but that’s exactly what this section of Offa’s Dyke Path will do. Since leaving the Clwydian range we've crossed several major watercourses on their way down from the Welsh uplands, but today we'll meet the mightiest of them all.
The bus from Welshpool drops us at Four Crosses, where we finished our last section back in May. This is a very low-lying settlement, not much more than 50m above sea-level on a wide plain stretching from Llanymynech Hill and Afon Efyrnwy to the north to the Breiddins to the southeast. The Dark Ages earthwork of Offa’s Dyke crosses this plain, but there was once much more going on here than the patchwork of fields now suggests.
The northern part of the village is called Llandysilio, one of many Welsh locations associated with St Tysilio, who died about 100 years before King Offa was born. In the fields to the east a huge complex of cropmarks has revealed a Bronze Age cemetery, now flattened, together with ring ditches and traces of field systems. There’s nothing to see now, but back in the Bronze Age this was clearly a place of some significance.
We follow the dyke itself southeast out of the village centre. It’s much reduced here, generations of ploughing cutting its height to barely a metre tall. Straight ahead is a dark bulk of hills. These are the Breiddins, rising near-vertically from the plain and site of a number of Iron Age earthworks that will be watching over our whole route today.
The section of dyke north of Rhos is very attractive, planted with a double row of oak trees. From here we have a nice retrospective view of Bryn Mawr hillfort, yet another prominent site overlooking this flat landscape that we're traversing. But our first – indeed only – site of the day lies just a couple of hundred yards away to the east.
Crosswood enclosure could be seen as part of the complex of sites around Four Crosses and Llandysilio. It’s a circular enclosure with an internal ditch, bisected by the road from Rhos to Llandrinio. The road crosses the site about a third of the way from the northern part of the arc, so it’s not an obvious re-use of any original entrances. Sadly the earthwork has been much reduced by ploughing, rather similarly to the nearby line of Offa’s Dyke. It’s best preserved at the northwest, where both the bank and the internal ditch can be made out clearly, albeit not the easiest thing to photograph. Running east the bank gets even further reduced, to the point of near-disappearance.
On the south of the road we couldn't see anything at all, but this did involve trying to peer through a pretty thick hedge!
Not the most impressive place to visit, but as pretty much the only visible remains of the numerous sites on this flat plan, it’s worth a quick hello.
Leaving Rhos we rejoin the line of the dyke, heading arrow-straight across the flatlands. From here, the enormous brooding bulk of Breiddin Hill Camp increasingly fills our view as we cross the meadows. Quarrying has blighted the side of the hill, but nevertheless the positioning of the fort on its top is pretty formidable. It blocks views to the other forts beyond. Way over to the southwest, a further wooded hillfort, Gaer Fawr (Welshpool) rises prominently, with Crowther’s Camp another to the south. We are surrounded by these monuments to status and power, down here in the fertile land that sustained them.
The hedgerows burst with cow parsley and the waving stalks of grass that’s too far out of reach of the cows that graze most of this landscape. The surroundings are increasingly marked with drainage cuts, keeping the fields dry from the overspill of the great river that we’re approaching.
The River Severn, or Afon Hafren, has made its way from its mountain source on Pumlumon and is now a fast-flowing obstacle, cutting across the broad plain between the rolling hills of Mid-Wales and the mini-mountains of the Breiddins. We will meet it again, at the very end of the Offa’s Dyke walk over a hundred miles away. By then it will be the mightiest of all British rivers, forcing its way out to sea against one of the most extreme tidal reaches anywhere on the planet. For now though, it will be our gentler companion for several miles south, as we search for a bridge to the other side.
A more pressing obstacle comes in the form of a huge lump of beef however. Our path follows the Tirymynach embankment, built to stop the river from bursting its banks and flooding the fields of the plain. This is dairy cattle country, and in summer bulls often share the fields with their families. One such bull has chosen to lie down bang up against one of the stiles along the embankment, blocking a narrow gap in a thick hedge. He seems unconcerned by our presence, but our only way onward would involve climbing over his back. This doesn't seem like the action of a sane person and we reluctantly have to turn back to Red House, adding unwanted extra miles and taking us away from the river temporarily. From Pool Quay we follow the Montgomery Canal, now restored and navigable, outliving the dismantled railway that supplanted it. This low-lying plain has long been a transport route, just as the Hafren/Severn itself must have provided a terrific highway for the prehistoric people who built the hillforts, and even further back to those who laid their dead in the cemetery at Four Crosses.
The river crossing finally comes at Buttington Bridge, but this is also the end of our Offa’s Dyke mileage for today and instead we head westwards to Welshpool. A strange walk for me, avoiding the hills that stand so prominent to either side of us. But a useful new perspective, to view the forts from below, as the prehistoric farmers viewed them in their heyday. Did they see the suspicious eyes of warlike overlords, or a lofty place of refuge in times of trouble? I guess we'll never know, but down here the mother river flows on and on, untroubled by such concerns.
Stone out of song – Bwlch y Ddeufaen and Maen y Bardd 9 July 2011
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.
The Mountains Are Singing - Penmaenmawr 2 July 11
Dammit, this train is getting later and later. Sometimes a delay is nothing, but today’s a big day of prehistoric excitement, if only I can ever get there. Last night a discussion on the forum led to an offer of a meet up at Penmaenmawr, in a part of Wales I’ve never been to, for a walk to the Druid’s Circle before a climb of Tal-y-Fan.
I ring my companion for the day, to tell her that Arriva are doing what they can to stop me ever getting there. Luckily the voice at the other end is one of calm reassurance, unphased by the changing timetable. This is my first contact with Blossom, who has offered the meet up.
By the time I get to Penmaenmawr, an hour and a half late, it’s shaping up to be a glorious summer’s day. Blossom is waiting on the platform, her dogs are waiting in the car, and without much ado off we head up the steep and winding road that leads to the Two Pillars carpark, at the top of the prosaically named Mountain Lane.
A broad and easy track climbs steadily from the carpark, carefully hiding the views south behind the flanking Foel Lus but providing a grand vista of the quarried and scarred Graig Llwyd and across to Ynys Mon – these are places I’ve longed to see, now laid out between azure sky and blue-green sea.
We emerge onto a hillside of well-made drystone walls and cropped grass. The long summit ridge of Tal-y-Fan is the principal backdrop, far off and high above.
After passing Red Farm
stone circle without a proper look, the impressive boulder of Maen Crwn is the first proper stop on the walk up towards the Druid's Circle.
Set in the V of a valley between higher hills, the long views are restricted. But it feels like a stone-on-the-way-to-somewhere stone, the kind you often find marking your path in upland Wales when on the way to exciting destinations. And given what waits above, it certainly performs that function beautifully.
The pull of the circles is too much to linger though...
It’s a further steady slog of a climb up from Maen Crwn
, and the excitement levels really ramp up from here on. Druid's Circle is already visible on the skyline above, but it's still worth restraining the urge to get there for a while with a pause at this lovely little circle.
Like something someone might build around a campfire, a simple ring of smooth stones, with a wonderful sea view. The dogs are very taken, sniffing around the inside of the ring. If it weren't for the fact that the Big Attraction is so visibly close, it would be easy to stop here for a good while.
But we don't.
It’s not much more of a pull upwards to reach the circle. There’s no-one else about so I can savour this beauty properly. The setting is as good as any stone circle I’ve been to, particularly on such a wondrous summer’s day. The sea to the north, the high peaks of the Carneddau mountains to the south. It’s a bit special this.
The stones are big, certainly bigger than you’d find in many Welsh circles. Each has character and there are veins of quartz here and there. Although some of the stones have fallen, it doesn’t detract from the overall impression.
Mountains, stones, silence, sea and sky.
I could write a few pages of superlatives, but really you should come and see for yourself. In the meantime, we have some lunch and take it all in.
Blossom has Frances Lynch’s excellent Gwynedd guide with her and we have a quick look to see what else there is around here. The prominent jumble of upright stones visible to the west is the most obvious place to head next. Unfortunately we don’t realise that Circle 278
is hidden away over a little crest and miss it completely. Drat.
Monument 280 (these numbers suggest a spectacular profusion of other sites crowding around us) is very difficult to get a handle on, even when you’re standing in its midst. A row of four uprights run north-south across the monument, while on the west an apparent kerb forms its edge. Shapes and patterns can be discerned, but are contradicted by other patterns. Truly an enigma.
Having singularly failed to realise we’d missed Circle 278, we continue west along the main track. Cors y Carneddau circle is supposedly on the north side of the track. Surely this should be easy to find?
Well, no. Part of the problem lies in the fact that there are quite of lot of random stones in the grass here. Which ones do you choose?
Eventually we decide that a group quite near to the drystone wall, just east of a corner, is the best bet. There are at least four stones in a sort-of arc, with a couple of additional possibles close by. But I could be persuaded otherwise…
What is entirely certain though, is the massive Cefn Coch (“Red Ridge”) cairn. It would be impressive anywhere, but what sets it apart from comparable sites is the stunning backdrop of the Carneddau.
Turning its face resolutely from the sea hidden behind a ridge to the north, the cairn unquestionably looks inland towards the mountains. The very highest peaks of the range are hidden from here, but the skyline is filled with an array of summits all well above the 2000ft mark, several of which boast contemporary monuments.
It's a breathtaking sight and we sit in awe for quite a while.
This stunning place will be our final outpost of the day. It’s getting on and my plans to head on to Tal-y-Fan, already compromised by the train delays, were abandoned as soon as I reached the circles. A first visit to this wonderful complex in such amazing weather deserves time to savour. Today I’ve had good company to savour it in.
We retrace our steps to the car and I know I will surely be back. What a perfect day.
49 Adventures - Wansdyke Wandering 28 May 2011
The previous weekend I used the 49 bus service to walk to Avebury from the north, so a walk from the south seems a fitting follow-up.
I get off at Shepherds Shore, the handy point where the post-Roman Wansdyke crosses the A361. There’s a gentle climb up the shoulder of Roughridge Hill, following the earthwork and allowing an unfolding view of Cherhill Down and Oldbury and the extensive North Down barrow cemetery.
The first stop off is Roughridge Hill long barrow. Well-defined on the OS map, the reality is rather less impressive. Unless you know it’s there, you’d pass by without a glance. All that remains is a low rise in the grassy field, hard up against the edge of the much bigger Wansdyke. The proximity of the dyke may suggest that the long barrow was a reasonably obvious landmark, perhaps a boundary feature, made use of by the earthwork builders when they were planning their route. Sadly it’s not so prominent now, not really worthy of much of a pause as I head across the hill.I briefly contemplate a proper look at Easton Down long barrow, which appears as a much more prominent and upstanding feature than its nearest contemporary. However, it’s a bit off my route for today, so I head south instead, off the Wansdyke and across fields of dusty earth and white chalk. A lonely reservoir tower, stark and angular, is the only trace of modern presence here. Reaching the southern slopes of Kitchen Barrow Hill, rows of Medieval strip lynchets provide evidence of earlier occupations.
Two lithe brown shapes dart into my path, then rise on hind legs to survey their route – it’s the first hares I’ve seen this year, always a great pleasure to encounter.
From the strip fields there is a great view of Kitchen Barrow Hill to the east. The south-facing scarp is steep and the presence of an intervening dry valley heightens the impression that Kitchen Barrow was placed to be seen from the neighbouring slopes. The area around the barrow is open access land, so there are no complications in getting to the site.
Pastscape records show a round barrow to the north of the long barrow, at a point where the fence changes direction. However, although there are several bumps alongside the fenceline, none is particularly obvious or convincing as the round barrow depicted on the OS map.
The long barrow is certainly obvious though, 30m or so long and a couple of metres high at its southern tip, with well defined flanking ditches. It lies along the sloping crest of the ridge, with its northeastern end almost blending into the hillside. The views south are extensive, as the ground drops sharply to the farmland and the valley of the Kennet & Avon Canal below. To the west there’s a great view of the multi-phase west end of Tan Hill, where more strip fields lie below a linear prehistoric earthwork and a group of Bronze Age round barrows are silhouetted on the skyline.
A good place to stop for a while and let the world turn, especially on a Wiltshire big skies day of fast-moving cloud. Regrettably today’s visit is under a rather more leaden variety.
From here I leave the top of the hill and follow the prehistoric earthwork northeast, heading back down towards the ever-impressive Wansdyke. A pair of deer materialise in the fields below me, making their swift way across my line of vision. Hares and deer, it’s turning into something of a wildlife spectacle today.
Leaving Kitchen Barrow it’s an easy walk around the rim of the escarpment to the western flank of Tan Hill. The first encounter is with the linear earthwork running just below the top of the slope. Presumably part of the same thinking that constructed a much longer section of bank and ditch on the northwestern side of the hill, it’s pretty well-preserved, with the hillside falling steeply away below it.
A bit of further uphill huff and puff and I’m in the midst of the round barrow group that crowns the western spur of Tan Hill, a promontory separated by a narrower neck from the main bulk of the hill to the east.
Tan Hill is the second highest hill in Wiltshire, only fractionally lower than nearby Milk Hill and part of the same long east-west ridge. As you’d perhaps expect from such a prominent place, looking out across the downs in all directions, the ridge is covered in a timespan of prehistoric sites from the Neolithic long barrows of Kitchen Barrow
at the western end and Adam’s Grave at the eastern end, through numerous round barrows and Iron Age earthworks, with Rybury
hillfort on a southern spur. There’s a great view westwards, taking in King’s Play Hill and Morgan’s Hill, each topped with further barrows, as well as the unmistakable Cherhill Down and Olbury with its obelisk.
The barrow group includes three bowl barrows, in a NW-SE line, with a much larger disc barrow close to the two northern bowl barrows. All are clearly visible, if rather reduced by ploughing. The bowl barrows (particularly the one at the SE) bear clear excavation damage. They are all covered by sheep-cropped grass, so there’s no seasonal vegetation problem to contend with in a visit.
Although it’s the most damaged, the SE barrow is still pretty impressive and boasts very extensive views. The central barrow is bigger, well over a metre high despite the ravages of time and barrow diggers. The NW barrow is the runt of the litter, clinging to its sloping setting like a barnacle. All have well defined surrounding ditches. The adjoining disc barrow is great too, almost 20m across, including its outer bank. All in all well worth the effort of the walk.
Wansdyke is most impressive here, snaking its way across the northern slopes of Tan Hill. There’s also a decent view of a single, large round barrow on Horton Down, surrounded by gallops but covered in a darker green mantle.
Fifteen minutes’ walk brings me close to the undulating silhouette of West Kennett long barrow, attended by more people than I’ve seen in the three hours since I left the bus. I like its inaccessibility from this long approach, it gives a good appreciation of its setting, how the profile stands proud against the skyline. My own route kinks east, then northeast, heading towards The Sanctuary. In the field immediately to the south, the mound of Avebury 23 round barrow can just be seen over the crop. More impressive is West Overton 1, the southernmost outlier of the long barrow cemetery stretching north of the A4.
Sadly the barrows on Allington Down have been rather less well-treated than their neighbours up on the ridge. Once a group of six, there’s nothing to see of all but one now. The plough has taken care of the rest. However, the one that does remain is very decent. It’s quite overgrown with nettles and long grass, topped with three shrubby May Trees in bloom, making it difficult to see whether there’s damage to its top.
I can see Silbury
, peaking out from trees and indicating how far I still have to go to get to Avebury today. So I go.
I visited The Sanctuary once before, on my first trip to Avebury. On a day of first contact with heart-stopping monuments, the concrete-marked circle seemed an anticlimax, a curio and little more. Today I’m more receptive, especially after the long, peaceful walk over the downs to get here.
The place is deserted when I arrive, allowing a better appreciation of the layout and in particular the size of the rings. The outer circle is a wide 40m across, as big as almost any stone circle I’ve been to. Although the little concrete blocks are no substitute for stately sarsens or hefty timbers, there’s still much to enjoy here, if you can block out the steady roar of the busy A4 just over the hedge. Looking south across the low Avebury 23 round barrow, the tree-covered form of East Kennett
long barrow can be seen from the circles. Such a shame that the original grandeur is lost forever though.
From The Sanctuary, a permissive path allows access to the remnants of West Kennett Avenue on the south side of the A4. This part of the monument seems to receive little attention, probably because of its separation from the better preserved section running northwestwards to Avebury.
However, it’s well worth a visit to make sense of the relationship of The Sanctuary and the henge complex. The first stone encountered is an enormous fallen slab, jutting out from the hedgeline. Beyond that is another fallen stone, apparently broken with a smaller piece placed on its top. The final stone in this group still stands, buried in the hedge and trapped behind barbed wire. It has been broken, leaving a short stump in place. Screened from the busy A4 by the thick hedge, this is a hidden spot, remarkably quiet for somewhere so close to the Avebury tourist hub. It doesn’t have the atmosphere or obvious draw of the well-known northern section of the Avenue, but it’s another part of the jigsaw that makes up this fascinating landscape.
Risking life and limb I cross the A4 onto the B4003, a narrow but busy road that runs parallel with the Avenue on its way to the henge. It’s worth stopping off at the single upright stone, separated from its companions by the road and hedges, looked down upon by the linear cemetery of massive round barrows along the Overton Hill
ridge to the east.
By now the threatening skies of earlier have turned to a persistent drizzle, and contact with any vegetation leads to an immediate soaking. I decide to leave the road and Avenue and instead head east to look for the scant remains of Falkner’s Circle. I’m on the last leg now, following increasingly wet and muddy tracks towards the village. Last week I sat in the sunshine and watched people in the circles, but today the wet doesn’t encourage sitting still. Even in the rain, Avebury is compelling; the massive stones silent and unmoving sentinels, watchful beneath the lowering skies.
A path leads round the margin of the field, eventually reaching a gateway where a single standing stone marks the position of the poor old circle. Nettles surround it, neglected and lost, a sad survivor with no-one to talk to. I’d like to come back on a less gloomy day, perhaps in the winter when the nettles have gone. It doesn’t feel like a place to linger today though.
A final embrace with the Cove, and the 49 is back, to take me homewards from another glimpse of the vast landscape surrounding the beating heart of Avebury.
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"The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal. Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits. These are for the seeking, and those who seek and find while there is still time will be blessed both in mind and body." Alfred Wainwright