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The third and final day of our Peak District trip is the Big One, the day out we were going to fit in no matter how bad the weather turned out to be. And in the end it’s a beautiful day, blue skies and barely a nip of autumn wind. After a revisit to Bakewell church to see the green men and huge collection of early medieval stones, we’re heading off to Owler Bar, little more than a pub and bus stop at the northeastern corner of Big Moor.
Big Moor is a sea of umber and orange at this time of year, and despite the busy A road running along its edge, it manages to feel like a remote place. Features are limited, just a gentle rise to the high points, the curve and dip of the course of Bar Brook, occasional lone trees, and the glint of sun on the half-empty Barbrook reservoir.
It’s towards this last feature that we head first, following a wet and muddy track running alongside Bar Brook itself. There are a few other walkers about, but they remain distant and unintrusive, leaving us to contemplate the gentle expanse of emptiness on either side as we head south.
The first site of the day, Barbrook III will be the most difficult to find, rendered so by small stones and tall grasses. Leaving the embanked edge of the reservoir behind, we follow a faint path NNE, hoping that the stones will show themselves. Arriving at a darker ring of bracken, obvious amongst the pale oranges of reedy grass, I concede that we’ve gone too far this time, so we head slightly downhill and back on ourselves. Soon after the first stone appears, barely peaking its head above the vegetation. Then another, and another, and another. This is a laugh out loud circle, so easy to miss yet huge in size, if not stones, once discovered.
It’s a bit squelchy, the stones are half-hidden, their spacing makes it hard to photograph more than a couple at a time, but it’s truly wonderful. The relative flatness of the moor makes the surroundings somewhat undramatic, but instead there is a sense of secrecy that has a charm all of its own. The play of light on the rising ground to the west, the gnarly lichen on one of the stones, the patterns of erosion and wear on the upper surfaces of others, all combine into a near perfect experience. We can see cars on the road, walkers in the distance, but it seems almost unthinkable that any of them might ever come here. Hidden in plain sight, a gem all the more precious for its coyness.
We retrace our steps towards the reservoir, then rejoin the course of Bar Brook heading south once more. The valley deepens slightly, the sides blocking the views and channelling us into a place of even greater quiet and solitude. We see no-one now, except a single doe silhouetted on the skyline to the southwest, watching our strolling progress. Closer inspection reveals the antlered head of a stag, keeping below the crest, and soon we pick out many moor of the herd, blending into the browns of the hillside across the valley.
As the path curves southeast, we leave it and cross onto the open moor. The sites here are concealed from the level of the track, but a substantial round cairn, covered only in a thin layer of turf, is the first obvious sign that we’re in the right area. We’ll have a look at the cairn group a bit later, but the next objective is something a bit more unusual.
Barbrook II is a bit of an enigma. A circle of free-standing stones, enclosed within a thick drystone wall that stands only slightly lower than the tops of the stones. I’m instantly in love with this place. We’ve never been before, another omission long awaiting correction. The circle feels utterly secluded, the wall and stones are low enough to escape attention from anyone but a deliberate visitor, especially as the Ordnance Survey map perplexingly shows no sign of the circle or nearby cairns at all, other than a misleading “field system” label.
This is somewhere to spend time, to watch the clouds and the changing light over the moor. We sit here for a while, no-one comes, nothing intrudes. There are lots of details, the burial cairn inside the circle, the large stone propped against the outside of the drystone wall, there’s also a cupmarked stone in the central cist but I don’t even notice it. The next time I come – and I really hope that isn’t too long away – I’ll pay more attention to these little elements, but today I’m so overwhelmed by the whole that I couldn’t really care less. Perfect.
The cairn cemetery lying between Barbrook II and Barbrook I proves well worth a stop off. A widely varied group, mostly dug into in the mid-19th century, many have excellent kerbs. The star of the show is the rebuilt cairn closest to Barbrook I, a bit of a classic of drystone edging about four courses high. One of the stones in the surround shows an interesting weathered pattern that is probably natural, but just possibly could be the very eroded trace of cupmarks.
From here we drop slightly to Barbrook I.
The third of today’s stone circles, and very different again from the other two. This is yer classic Peaks embanked circle, compact and neat. Unlike, say, Nine Ladies, the stones are quite varied in size, although with no particularly obvious grading towards a compass point. The top of one of the stones has cupmarks, something I was completely unaware of, but which recalls the stone at Stanage we visited yesterday.
When we first got into stone circles, I read that the Barbrook sites and Big Moor were closed for environmental reasons – this was in the days before the Countryside and Rights of Way Act opened up swathes of access land, and before the internet might have told me different – so we never came here on our earlier Peaks holidays. As I’ve felt throughout these last three days, the long wait has both sharpened and sweetened the experience of finally coming to these sites. They compare with the best.
The proximity of the track perhaps keeps this from quite reaching the heights of Barbrook II as a place to find solitude, but in truth no one passes our way in the time we’re here. We will definitely be back here.
So we bid goodbye to Big Moor, a brilliant introduction to some of the best sites I’ve been to. We head across the A road and skirt the edge of Ramsley Moor, our progress temporarily halted by a herd of cows that really would prefer not to get out of the way. Once these are safely persuaded to give us passage, Gardom’s Edge lies ahead of us. The sun is sinking low now, our eyes dazzle.
After crossing a slightly boggy patch of open moor, we head into the long shadows of a birch wood, stark black and white trunks surrounded by the darkening reds of dying bracken. There are a few people about, children’s voices carrying through the trees from somewhere ahead, unseen.
The main reason for coming here is the rock art panel, so memorably filled with pink flowers by Postman a few years ago. But first, I’m hoping to find the standing stone, something of a rarity in this area. We walk through the woods, trying to stay away from the treeless edge, as I know the stone won’t be found there. It turns out to be further south than I’d realised, another site that the Ordnance Survey map doesn’t show. Eventually it makes itself known, as we get towards the higher part of the wood. The light has gone strange now, the low sun filtered around the edges of a bank of cloud giving an ethereal glow to the woods and the stone.
The stone is a good one, a little taller than I imagined and different from each angle and direction. Like many of the best standing stones, it gives off a feeling of sentience. Even though I know this is just projection on my part, it’s hard to shake once felt. There’s no malignance, or beneficence, just a presence. I often find woodland sites hard to leave, and the stone definitely exerts a pull. As we leave I’m compelled to look back, Orpheus to Eurydice.
Next up, we encounter the stonework of Meg’s Walls. Half-buried in the undergrowth, too large to take in easily, this is a fascinating survivor enhanced by a lovely woodland setting. But we’re really here for rock art. After a bit of rooting about in the undergrowth, we find it on the edge of the woods, looking towards the steep western face of Birchen Edge. The light is now too low to illuminate the panel, but casts a soft orange glow across the moor ahead of us.
Despite knowing that it’s a replica, the panel itself is still very impressive. I love the variety of patterns, whatever it represents – or doesn’t. Water has collected in the deepest cup, reflecting the slender trees and blue sky above, an ever open, all-seeing eye on the world.
We follow the arc of Meg’s Walls south, before leaving the wood to emerge at the Three Men cairn. The three stone piles are clearly modern, but they sit on a much larger footprint. The views from here are great, looking down on Baslow as the sun sinks further. It’s starting to get colder and it won’t be long now until dark, so we press on without lingering.
The path makes its descent, cutting through a cairnfield of pretty large, irregularly shaped cairns. The Gardom’s Edge ring cairn is completely hidden by bracken, but can be spotted by the forked silver birch that grows from its embanked edge. Once found, the course can be followed round easily enough, but really this is a place for a winter visit if you want to see it properly.
We drop down to Robin Hood, for the final bus journey back, near where we started the first walk of this break under snowy skies.
I’ve been re-energised by these last three days, a shot in the arm of prehistory. Revisiting the area where it all started, finding so much still to see for the first time, a reminder why these wonderful, enigmatic sites captured my heart in the first place.
Posted by thesweetcheat
1st December 2016ce
There is an annual tradition, or perhaps folklore, that says it always rains or hails on 10 November. I try to dispute this but more often than not it turns out to be accurate, so it’s no great surprise to open the curtains to see a heavy shower to start the day.
Today we’re going to Eyam Moor, to visit Wet Withens and a cup marked rock that have been on my imaginary visits list ever since we first started going to see prehistoric sites. There was an aborted attempt, round about 2000, when we went to Eyam but never made it beyond the outskirts as the weather closed in. I recall Eyam as a gloomy place, the omnipresent plague history coupled with the grey and damp conditions that day doing little to lift the spirits.
We’re off to Grindleford, a small village in the picturesque Derwent Valley, perched just below the eastern edge of Eyam Moor. There’s an initial steep pull up the road out of the village, enlivened by a steadily unfolding view of the moors and edges to the east, now under blue sky and banks of cloud that still carry the threat or promise of more rain. To the northeast is Owler Tor and the prominent outcrop of Mother Cap Stone, to the east Stoke Flat with Big Moor rising beyond. I’m hoping we’ll get across that way the next day.
The road levels off as it climbs on to relatively flat moorland, with the obvious landmark of the mast on Sir William Hill ahead of us. After a mile or so we arrive at a junction with a rough, stony track heading towards the summit, and finger posts for footpaths heading off northwest and northeast across the moor. We decide to follow the track west, to gain the last bit of height and hopefully take in an expansive view north and west from the summit ridge. Unfortunately, just as we cross the step stile onto the grassy slopes, the rain starts to spit and by the time we’ve reached the trig point it’s become a downpour. We take shelter in a little quarry scoop and don waterproofs. Once we’ve done so, the trailing edge of the shower is starting to pass, clearing the views but leaving a keen, chilly wind in its wake.
The views to the west and north are far reaching now that the storm front has passed. The bulk of the Kinder plateau fills part of the skyline, and in front of it I’m pleased to see the familiar face of Mam Tor. There are no prehistoric remains on top of Sir William Hill, even though it would be an obvious place for a cairn or barrow. The summit ridge drops gently to the NNE, and at a modern marker cairn we head more steeply downhill to the northwest, along a clear, grassy path that cuts into and through a dark sea of heather and provides a nice aerial view of our first site of the day.
Where the ground once again levels off, Stanage cairn sits to the east of the path, surrounded by heather but prominent enough to stand clear of it. It’s a flat-topped mound at least 15 metres across, with a rubble bank poking through the vegetation on its circumference. It enjoys a great view to the north, with Mam Tor just peaking over Abney Moor. The most striking landscape feature from here is Win Hill, which reminds me of the Sugarloaf/Pen y Fal in South Wales. A good cairn in a lovely spot, but the real gem here is the cup marked stone in the edge of the monument.
I’ve been aware of this stone for the best part of two decades, simply because I bought a postcard of it in Bakewell bookshop a long time ago. Somehow I’ve never quite found the time to get here until now, but it’s even better in the flesh. The cupmarks are large and cover two sides of the stone, as well as its top. We stop here for a while, watching the wind push the rain clouds of earlier further east, before revealing one last gift, an incomplete rainbow hanging beautifully over Win Hill. There are moments when time stops and lets you breathe, completely at peace. This is one of those, fleetingly brief but eagerly snatched.
At length we say our goodbyes, crossing the neck of the spur before heading southeastwards, up a pitted and muddy path alongside a drystone wall. Over the wall is the main part of Eyam Moor, clothed in dense heather interspersed with lighter, reedy patches that look suspiciously boggy. A direct route to Wet Withens would be to hack our way across here, but it looks horrible and instead we follow the path all the way back to the road, pausing to admire the hide-and-seek rainbow that has now chosen to reapparate over Higger Tor.
When we get to the road the sky behind us is almost black, heavy with the promise of another cloudburst. The sun continues to shine on us for the moment, and the other end of our new rainbow friend is beckoning us to a pot of gold right at Wet Withens, so we turn northeast and head off. Half a mile in and the torrent arrives, before slackening off again as we reach the stone gateposts in the drystone wall that marks the eastern edge of the moor.
From here it’s a matter of picking a route through the knee deep heather as best we can. It’s slow progress, each open area of tussocky grass between the heather coming as a relief. Eventually we attain the high part of the moor, just as the rain is coming down again. There are a few prominent but misshapen cairns up here, one of which we crouch beside, seeking to bury ourselves and avoid the heavy tail-end of the shower. Once that clears and we can see our surroundings better, it’s clear that we’ve crossed the moor too far south and need to head slightly downhill towards the northern edge of the plateau.
As the sun starts to come out, it picks out a light grey amongst the browns and reds, revealing the presence of the mutilated cairn next to Wet Withins. With that fixed, the eye then finds the darkly curving bank of the stone circle itself, with one larger stone standing out at its edge.
Wet Withens is another Peaks site that has lived in my mind and on my imaginary list for a long time. A feature in Burl’s guide, apart from the one swiftly abandoned attempt so long ago it’s eluded me up until now.
Rather like Gibbet Moor yesterday, some of the joy of coming here is undoubtedly borne from relief and satisfaction at actually getting here. But as well as that, it’s a terrific site. Bigger than I expected, the clearly defined bank and neatly placed stones make it a wonderful example of the ubiquitous Peak District embanked stone circle. Add to that the colours of the moor, freshly scrubbed from the recent soaking and illuminated by the sun against the dark backdrop of billowing clouds, and we’ve got a bit of a classic going on.
The barrow is a mess, the shape all but gone, straggling and ragged at the edges. But there’s still a lot of stone here, indicating that the upheaval wasn’t about robbing for walls. And the setting is perfect, better than the circle itself as it’s that bit closer to the northern lip of the moor. The countryside drops to a patchwork of green fields in the Derwent valley, with Hathersage the obvious settlement below. Beyond and above, the hills rise again towards the high uplands above Edale, the moors of South Yorkshire and the edges around Higger Tor. The day is drawing on, and the lack of late buses from Eyam or Grindleford means that we have to head down to Hathersage, so reluctantly we depart this place. Heading east we find a faint path through the heather, promising an easier route off the moor despite occasionally petering out. At length we’re down at Leem, after a final steep descent via a treacherously slippery mud-slide. Then it’s winding lanes and a main road along the valley to Hathersage and home.
Our rainbow makes its last appearance of the day, a welcome splash of colour against the grey. I should have come here years ago, but it’s still a sweet pleasure to come now.
The folklore rang true, the tradition was duly enacted and the day dispensed a deluge as foretold. But it also provided a long-overdue visit to a wild and windy moor, to sites that have waited long in the mind and now persist in the memory, in a light display refracted through the prism of pouring rain.
Posted by thesweetcheat
27th November 2016ce
The morning brings snow, the first of this season. It falls heavily on Bakewell, but doesn’t stick. Advice in the coffee shop suggests that if we want to see proper snow we should head northwest to the higher moors and sharper edges, but that comes with the risk of bus cancellations and a difficult journey back. Instead Gibbet Moor wins the right to be the first trip out of this Peak District break, a relatively low moor with an easy climb from the road to the north, perfect for legs reacclimatising themselves to the hills after absence.
We start with a bit of a road slog under light drizzle that takes us past Stone Low, perched on the lip of valley to the north of the road. This cairn, once large and impressive, is now little more than a slight rim, a rise in the grass beside fieldwall and beneath trees. Nice position, but little else to see now. Better things await though, and we’re keen to get off the road and onto the moor.
Gibbet Moor is access land, and we make our way uphill, along a sturdy track running southwest from where the road crosses Umberley Brook. TMA shows all sorts of sites up here, but I only have eyes for the stone circle, three stones remaining of what might be a rare non-Scottish example of a “four poster”.
I know the circle is somewhere about 500m to the southeast of the point where the track meets a drystone wall. From here the tussocky, reedy grass and patches of heather look decidedly unappealing and lacking in paths, but this is where we need to go. Setting off into the slight unknown, the vegetation isn’t as bad as it looked, low enough to step through without snagging ankles and feet. But it is wet, and within 20 yards of leaving the track my feet are soaked in my old boots. Nice.
We wander around the gently sloping hillside looking for small stones in every reed clump and heather swell. There are plenty of stones, little stones, bigger stones, outcrops and individual rocks. But nothing resembling three stones of a circle. At one point I head towards an odd looking line of upright pallets, but nothing leaps out from the grasses.
We’ve been going around in circles for about 40 minutes before I finally decide to look properly at the photos on TMA. The first couple are by Stubob, one showing the recognisable dark swell of East Moor, the next looking north across the valley towards a distinctive clump of trees on the opposite hillside. The conditions are different to our dull grey skies and distant snow, but the landmarks are unchanged. Getting to a position where both photos match the view from where we are involves heading into a particularly soggy patch of reedy grass, close to one of the pallets I noticed earlier. And suddenly, there they are: three stones, unmistakeably slim and upright, their heads barely poking above grasses. Without Stu’s photos we’d probably still be there now, so much gratitude is due to the Peaks pioneer.
The lengthening grasses are threatening to drag the stones under, appearing quite a bit taller than in the previous photos. But despite the soggy setting and the even soggier feet, despite the small size of the stones and the absence of a fourth stone, I really like this site. Perhaps it’s partly the sense of relief and satisfaction at actually finding the circle, but it has a lot of charm. The views to the northwest and north are fine, across the valley and out to the distant edges. At this time of year the reedy grasses are a lovely shade of orange, which sadly the recalcitrant sun fails to properly light while we’re here. The stones are well chosen, shapely and lightly tapering. Whether this ever was a four stone circle, or just a three stone setting, I guess we’ll never know. But it’s well worth a visit, just wear something waterproof on your feet.
Back on the track, the sun threatens to come out. We pass a linear stone built feature on our left, its end right up against the edges of the track and containing a couple of upright stones. At first I take it for a group of damaged hut circles, with the uprights marking an entrance, but it’s not obvious that it is the case.
Reaching the top of the moor, the views northwest open up to reveal a good coating of snow on the distant moors. The sky over us is closing in again, although there’s no sign of any rain or snow, just a dulling of the light giving the impression of dusk even at this early hour of the afternoon.
The track edges southeast alongside estate wall and dense treeline, gradually climbing to the crest of the moor. The snow cover is a little thicker here, although you would be hard put to find enough to build a snow fairy. The next stop-off comes into view, heralded by a boggy bit of path and an information board.
We came to Hob Hurst’s House on our second Peak District holiday, pretty much exactly 18 years ago to the day. I remember a walk through the woods above Chatsworth, then crossing a boggy and wet moor under increasingly heavy rain. We were ill-dressed for open November moorland in the rain, and our first visit to a chambered tomb left both of us soggy and underwhelmed.
Since then we’ve been to a lot more prehistoric sites, and I’ve wanted to return here for ages. Funny how your memory is both accurate in details and completely faulty in the broader picture. As soon as we get here, I instantly remember the shape, size and layout of the mound with its squared-off bank and ditch. But I don’t recall the exposed stones of the chamber at all. I also have a recollection of a fairly flat landscape, perhaps the rain and cloud condensed the world around us that day. Today the views to the south are extensive and sweeping, taking in the deep valley of Beeley Brook, with the sharp line of Harland Edge above, then onwards to rising ridges and long hillsides fading into grey. The unmistakeable feature on the skyline is Minninglow
, for all that I’ve never been there. For the second time today Stubob’s presence in these hills is palpable. Eyup Stu.
We stop here for a while and have a proper look at the chamber, noticing that the mound itself appears to be built at least partly of stone, another thing missed the first time. It’s too damp to sit and my wet feet are beginning to make me cold, and in any case there’s one more reacquaintance to be made today, so we head off downhill, following the line of the wood until we reach a field boundary.
The direct route would be to carry on southwest directly across the open moor from here, but I decide to avoid another foot soaking and we follow the obvious path south instead until it drops into a holloway carved out by many feet, then joins a firmer track heading westwards towards Chatsworth.
Park Gate stone circle is not visible from the track, so it’s a matter of following the route until it starts to turn northwest, where another fainter path heads off north onto the moor again. There are a couple of stones in the circle that are big enough to stand above the reedy grasses, so it’s a lot easier to see than Gibbet Moor was earlier.
This is the second revisit of the day, as we came here in 1998 on the same day as Hob Hurst’s House. At the time it was the fourth stone circle I’d been to, after Arbor Low, Nine Ladies and Nine Stones Close, three of the Peak District’s big hitters. So it’s probably not a great surprise that it felt a bit of a disappointment after those sites. Although there are at least ten stones in the circle, many of them are small and overwhelmed by the tufty, reedy grass that surrounds the site. The biggest stone, on the southwest of the circle, is leaning at an alarming angle over the top of a pit that threatens to swallow it whole if it ever goes the rest of the way. The most striking stone is the one on the east, a shapely upright with what appears to be at least one cupmark and some other dents that are apparently bullet holes and do have a ragged outline. This is the stone I remember from our first visit, and indeed the only one that I have a photo of.
For all that, it’s actually a really good circle. In the 18 years since I last came, I’ve been to a lot of wrecked, dishevelled, uncared for, ploughed out, vandalised and generally unloved sites. So although there’s also been a lot of awe-inspiring, stop-you–dead-at-50 paces classics over the same period, my expectations are very different to how they were back then. Now, I see a fine circle in a good setting, looking towards Harland Edge particularly. It could do with a de-vegging, as the long grass is detracting from the sense of the whole site. Circle stones needn’t be enormous to make an impression, as anyone who’s had the pleasure of Cerrig Duon or Nant Tarw could attest. But they do need to be kept visible, and a judicious tidy up here would do it wonders.
The only disappointment really is the terrible dullness of the day. It’s not even 2:30 but it feels like dusk, as though the sun has given up and set early, leaving a crepuscular greyness to the scene, even with the autumn colours of the moor. We head back to the track and head west.
The final site of the day is Beeley Moor ring cairn, an easy visit as it’s right next to the track. So near in fact that the track is slowly nibbling away at its northern arc. The monument itself is quite heavily overgrown with heather and scrubby grass on the circumference and bracken in the centre. Stones protrude from the bank here and there. It’s reasonably upstanding, but worth a stop off mainly for the excellent views down to the valley below.
From here the path starts to descend more steeply – I have no memory of this being an uphill slog on our first visit, where we came from the opposite direction. At length we reach a step stile over the estate wall, and head into the lovely woodland of the Chatsworth Estate, eventually emerging into the park for the last walk into Baslow as dusk falls, for real this time.
As well as the visit to Gibbet Moor, it’s been wonderful to return to Hob Hurst’s House and Park Gate after so long, the longest gap between visits of any sites we’ve been to. The intervening years have sharpened the interest, provided a lot more context and perhaps some better understanding. It feels rather like coming home.
Posted by thesweetcheat
23rd November 2016ce
I had been grounded for the rest of this year when a few days expectantly opened up and my wife urged me to make the best use of them, however, it meant setting of the very next morning. The weather was foul with snow forecast across the hills so I reluctantly left my van at home at took the car, which had the bonus of 4 wheel drive, and I would have to rely on finding budget hotels along the way. This turned out to be overcautious as the weather was glorious with sunny autumn days making it a pleasure to be out and about. I picked out a route which skipped along the South Wales coast and after an easy journey cross country started at the Harold Stones just South of Monmouth. Interesting alignment of 3 standing stones, difficult to imagine that that was all there was to it and impossible to guess what it might have been part of. The site itself is not very attractive, nor are the stones, being forged from the local puddingstone and looking like concrete reproductions (if I have offended anyone then apologies all round). Next it was off to Cardiff to see the Tinkerswood burial chamber. Nicely set a field away from the road with the reception and burial areas clearly defined. From here it was a pleasant walk down the narrow lanes to St Lythams. Despite the unfriendly warnings of dire retribution for anyone who steps of the defined footpath it is a pleasant place to visit and the chamber differs in the sense that the capstone is supported by huge stone slabs rather than columns, the right hand one with interesting cup markings (original or added later I don't know). A longish drive from here to the Gower peninsula for a brief visit to Parc le Breos, an interesting site, as if the top half has been sliced off with a huge knife allowing you to look at the inner construction, however, the real, and unexpected, gem was just a few miles up the road at Maen Ceti. The chamber here has the most huge unlikely looking capstone on very small stone pillars. The setting is wonderful with a well preserved cairn alongside and the hillside overlooking the estuary is a treasure trove of fallen stones, lost cairns and other evidence of the importance a scale of development that must have been in existence here. I ended up spending the rest of the day here just wondering around like the proverbial child in a sweetshop. The following morning turned into 'heaven on earth'. I drove into Manorbier in search of the Devil's Quoit and instantly fell in love with the place, down onto the beach up onto the coastal path, the sun was gleaming off the white horses breaking onto the beach, nothing could have been more perfect. Despite deciding I wanted to live there I forced myself on to Solva to visit the interestingly named St Elvis chambers. A longish walk down the farm track, through ankle deep shit and there they are, two chambers next to each other, nastily fenced off, however, they did include some information and I was glad I had made the effort. Carrying on around the coast I next visited Carreg Samson near Abercastle. I drove a little too far and ended up in the farm yard and decided to park there anyway, as it turned out right outside the gate that led into the field where Samson sat making it a pretty easy trip. This is a great site despite being intimidated by the local herd of cows, and a setting to die for overlooking the bay in one direction the hills behind. Next the road took me up to Carreg Coetan, now set within a modern development of houses and bungalows, however, afforded its own little garden and a pleasant place to visit. Further around the coast and I was at Llech y Drybedd. There is nothing to indicate its existence and I was pleased I had noted the name of the farm. I parked on the main road opposite the farm track and set off up the path past the farm and keeping left at the fork. The chamber sits rather lonely, unloved and unmarked in the corner of the field and I hope at least provides some comfort to the dairy cattle in bad weather. It couldn't be put off any longer, time to visit the mighty Pentre Ifan and I was pleased it did not disappoint. A well cared for site down some narrow lanes it is clearly part of some bigger development long since destroyed. This is a site to stop and linger at to walk around two or three times to try and assess the original dimensions, the approach, the landscape 5 to 6 thousand years ago and where the people lived. Before working my way home I had a couple of inland sites I wanted to visit, the first was Craig Rhosyfelin believed to be where at least one of Stonehenge bluestones came from. Parking alongside the Ford there is easy access into the site through a field gate. It is a beautiful site set into a narrow valley and the side wall has crumbled revealing and allowing the texture of the rocks to weather gracefully. To the layman it seemed a huge stretch to call this a quarry as opposed to a natural rock outcrop left behind by the ice age, however, that was not my concern, I just bathed in the beauty of the place and the overwhelming sense of history. My last stop was at the sprawling site of Gors Fawr, rather like a Preseli version of Stanton Moor ie there is evidence of neolithic activity everywhere, stone circles, standing stones and odd stones which may or may not have been part of a larger structure. The area was sodden and I couldn't get as far as I wanted so I left behind the perfect excuse to go back to this wonderful part of the country, if only to visit the Devil's Quoit one more time. A dash down the M4, M5, M6, A14, A1 and I was back in Lincolnshire in time to throw the cat out.
Posted by costaexpress
12th November 2016ce
This is a journey that’s taken two years to come to fruition and seemed like it might never happen at times. Two years ago we were all set to go, ferries booked, camper van sorted and routes planned and then a week before departure Mrs Cane slipped a disc and was advised not to travel. So we postponed and waited and waited and then work got in the way and then it was nearly 18 months before we thought it might all be back on again. So, literally a few weeks before a prospective date was selected, we started to re-plan the whole merry dance.
As we were driving all the way from the South Coast we knew we couldn’t do it all in one day so we contacted our friend Karl the Viking in Derbyshire and another old friend Pip near Hadrian’s Wall as possible campsites en route. Day one and we’re driving up the M1 when the van’s automatic gearbox starts to misbehave. We come off the motorway at Chesterfield and by a stroke of luck there’s a Mazda dealer with a service department in the town centre, (Perrys - if you ever have problems with your Mazda ask to speak to Nigel He’s your man!) Luckily they diagnose it and say that the gearbox doesn’t appear to be wrecked, but can’t fix it today. So we have to ring up International Rescue who come and pick up our van, lend us Thunderbird 6 (like a Citroen C1) overnight so we can get to Karl’s and assure us that they’ll do their best to allow our Orkney dream to thrive.
The next day we call International Rescue and Mr Tracy says that the van should be ready by mid afternoon dependent on a quick road test. I decide that a trip to nearby Mam Tor is in order as we’ve never actually climbed up it, merely gazed longingly from a distance. Boy is it windy up there today and the higher we climb the worse it gets to the point where you feel you could almost lie on it, though not too close to the edge obviously. I’m not entirely sure about pavements up hills, even if they’re nice stone sets tastefully placed, but as Mrs C only has sandals on I’ll let that one go. You really can’t beat the Shivering Mountain for views, even the cement factory in Castleton looks enigmatic today and all around is a green heaven of loveliness. For a week day it’s surprisingly busy up here with people coming and going in every direction, well actually either up or down. We descend to the car park to continue our journey back towards Chesterfield and wonder how things will pan out over the next hour. Luckily the camper van is fixed and seems to have no further problems so we continue our expedition Northwards. Th,th,th,thanks Mr Tracy!
We arrive at Pip’s near Haltwhistle just as it starts to get dark and decide that we’ll stay an extra day rather than jump straight back into the van the following morning. We ring the ferry company to move our crossing date and luckily that’s ok. The next day we wake to a hot and sunshiny day and plan a days walk around the local area with a picnic and a chance to catch up on seven years of news. During the walk we find and pick a lot of wild mushrooms and bring them back with us to use in that evenings meal. Fungi collecting is something we’ve done for almost thirty years and never had a problem with so it’s a real shock to have Mrs C being violently sick at 2.00 in the morning. Eventually this stops and we all go back to bed but wonder who might be next, having consumed the same mushrooms. Thankfully it doesn’t happen, but Mrs C is still feeling a bit odd and we try to get medical advice. After numerous calls to local chemists, hospitals and NHS Direct, but not International Rescue, we are advised by RVI Newcastle to come into A&E and get some blood tests done in case something like kidney failure strikes 3 days later. Thoughts of making it to the Orkneys are now beginning to fade, but that’s really the last thing on our minds at this stage. The wonderful people at RVI Newcastle take good care of her but insist that she stays in overnight so they can keep an eye on her and get the results from their numerous blood tests the following morning. A tense 12 hours later Mrs C is feeling much better and the test results are fine. They think she probably picked and then discarded a particularly virulent mushroom (might have been a Destroying Angel) and should have cleaned her hands before we had our picnic, which might explain why she was the only one to get ill.
So, off we go again. We know we can’t make it all the way to Gills Bay by this evening but we get as far as Inverness and decide that we’ll over-night it at Clava Cairns. This is our first visit to a Scottish prehistoric site and what a great opener! This really is quite a spectacular place; cairns, stone circles, cup marked stones and all neatly contained in a leafy glade. I wander around excitedly photographing what’s on offer while Mrs C reads all the info which is conveniently supplied next to each cairn. After a while she heads back to the camper van in the car park to prepare our evening meal and I have to resort to flash and long exposures as the light dies. Then the first stars begin to shine through the cloudless sky and a real magic takes hold of the site. The next morning the magic is sustained with low raking Autumnal sunshine giving another chance to amble around the place viewing it afresh. I hadn’t realised the evening before that the road alongside the site actually passes through the stone circle of the Southernmost cairn leaving one of the standing stones isolated from it’s brethren.
After a quick breakfast we do the last part of our journey through the Highlands and get to Gills Bay at lunchtime. It’s so well timed that Pentland Ferries allow us to travel on the next sailing in 45 minutes even though we’re 2 days late arriving there, though we had kept them informed of our predicaments and they are a very understanding and flexible company. After disembarking we immediately head to the bottom of South Ronaldsay Island to visit The Tomb of the Eagles. One of the great things about this site is that you get a comprehensive talk with it and are allowed to handle some of the finds from the tomb. After that you make your way to the tomb via a Bronze Age building which once functioned as a sauna! It’s difficult to know whether this theory is true or not but considering the burnt mound next to it and that it was connected to a source of fresh water, that would appear to be a reasonable bit of guess work…or maybe they were just steaming their vegetables to retain some of the vitamins that we modern people simply boil away. Clever. The tomb itself is quite impressive with great sea views from the edge of the cliff and you have a choice of rolling through the entrance passage on an oversized skateboard or squatting down and shuffling through while banging your camera against the wall. Sadly I chose option two. You can only truly appreciate the space once everybody else has departed, which after about 20 minutes they do, and then you can marvel at the workmanship and thought that went into this 4500 year old architecture and the man hours it took to produce it. They either took a very long time with few people or maybe life was good and the population relatively high during this period? Judging by the sheer amount of monuments and settlements spread throughout the Orkneys you’d like to think it was the latter. Walking back to the museum you can take the cliff edge route which gives you an insight as to the building supplies available, i.e. tons of stratified sandstone that was easily quarried. Back at the museum we enquired about Banks, another nearby tomb, only to be told that it had just closed for the season. Damn.
The next day is the Autumn Equinox (timely!) and we head off from the campsite at Kirkwall for Maeshowe. Due to it’s extreme popularity and the fact that it’s about to be closed down for some time we have to reserve a time slot 2 hours later. We’re also advised that there’s a ‘no photography inside the tomb’ policy in place, which although making sense in terms of crowd numbers, leaves me feeling a bit dis-heartened. I’ve driven 750 miles and this was on the top of my list! We head off for the nearby Stones of Stenness and that too is fairly brimming with people, but at least you can take photos. These are rather fine stones that wouldn’t look out of place in a sculpture park; tall, thin, elegant slabs with interesting angles. Were they always that shape and where are the rest? Presumably once a beautiful circle, now a whimsical arrangement. It just doesn’t seem to look old, though apparently it pre-dates it’s neighbour The Ring of Brodgar and that’s where we’re off to next.
By the time we’ve parked up at the Brodgar Neolithic car park we only have time to walk to the ring, circle it once and then head back to the car park and back to Maeshowe. We’ll return to Brodgar later. Maeshowe. Well what can you say? It really is something else. Firstly there’s that amazing tunnel entrance, which I avoid banging my camera into, and at first assume it to be modern and quite tastefully rendered, but no, it’s four very long slabs of stone set at right angles delivering you to the heart of the huge mound. Once we’re all safely in and our eyes have adjusted to the weak light we can begin to understand this marvel. Yesterday I’d been impressed by The Tomb of the Eagles, but Maeshowe makes it look like a Wimpey home, but to be fair, it’s not as old and the Orkney tomb builders had probably had a decent amount of practice by then. Precision seems to be the order of the day here and every slab of stone fits neatly to produce perfect recesses for the remains of the ancestors (again like the entrance way with single slabs for walls, floor and ceiling), perfectly arced walls head to what would originally have been a beautiful, high corbelled dome. It is stated by the guide that the four upright stones that make up the corners of the tomb are actually not supporting anything and of no architectural importance and there is the possibility that they were there before the present tomb or were at least nearby and had some significance and were incorporated into the tomb. Again they’re all of a similar size and shape. Also of interest are the Viking Runes and pictures scratched into some of the slabs during the 12th Century which can only be properly seen by the guide sweeping the light from her torch across them. If there was ever anything of interest or value within the tomb it had certainly disappeared by 1861 when it was first excavated and there is the possibility that it was never used at all, though to my mind that seems doubtful with all this dextrous handiwork and a Winter Solstice sun shining brightly down it’s passage. Probably those pesky Vikings.
After a brief chat with the guide at the end of our session I’m surprisingly permitted to take a few pictures of the interior, but only on condition that they don’t appear anywhere and are just for my own personal use. Fair enough. After this we continue our whirlwind tour with a quick stop at Unstan, yet another chambered cairn which is smaller and more cute than either Maeshowe or TTOTE. The interior is very similar to Eagles with its stalls but, in this case, only a single recess off the main chamber. I have the whole place to myself, which is nice, until I hear voices outside, a woman urging her partner to go inside and have a look and his reply with an Estuarine twang of “Nah, looks f**kin’ borin’ ”. They’re obviously having a great time on the islands.
Our final destination for the day is Skara Brae just a few miles up the road from here. We arrive to find a car park almost full to the brim with coaches and cars and I’m beginning to think this is not such a good idea. However, once we’re through the visitor centre, cafe and shop we realise that they’re not really that interested in the main attraction which is almost deserted. Strange! Why would you pay to get in and then blow all that money on the side shows? My first impressions are that the village is actually quite small and incredibly compact. Were there any other similar structures nearby I wonder? The preservation of the interiors is quite amazing and it’s a real shame you’re restricted to viewing it from a short distance. Why don’t I have long black, flowing hair, a Scottish accent and a film crew behind me? Then I’m sure it would be just fine to have a good nosey around. I wonder how dark this semi-troglodyte world would have been with it’s narrow openings into restricted alley ways and probably only a fire to light the interiors and a tiny opening in the roof to let the smoke out, rather like the tombs they built for their dead. Before we leave there’s just enough time to have a quick look around Skaill House, home to the discoverers of Skara Brae on whose land it sits. There’s an illustration there of the ‘Stones of Stennis, Orkney’, dated December 7th 1820, which is a little mystifying as on closer inspection it’s quite obviously The Ring of Brodgar. When did the names change? Or were both the circles generalised as the ‘Stones of Stennis’? Answers on a postcard please to…… As it’s now getting late and I think Mrs C probably can’t take a revisit to The Ring of Brodgar today without serious matrimonial breakdown we head to Stromness to find a camp site for the night.
The next day is mostly taken up by a visit to The Pier Arts Centre in Stromness which is a fantastic building and has some very interesting work on show. Thoroughly recommended, but it lacks a cafe. After lunch we head off to the Brough of Birsay in the North West of Mainland. This is a small island separated from Mainland at high tide, but at low tide you’re afforded a few hours to cross by foot onto the island where you can frolic around the remains of a Pictish/Viking settlement and a wee church. When we arrive at the car park there are a number of Norwegian tourists (Vikings I believe) waiting for the tide to go out while consuming local whiskey. I ask them what they’ve done with the contents of Maishowe, but they just look at me blankly, or drunkly. A nice evening is spent at the Brough of Birsay watching the sun set.
We awake to leaden skies, have our breakfast and head off to the Broch of Gurness. It’s not open when we arrive and we make a mug of tea and wait. Eventually a man on a bicycle arrives and opens up and let’s us in. Luckily the sun breaks through and all is wonderful. Being a Broch virgin I take my time wandering around noting the double skin walling of the broch itself (what’s that all about? Insulation? Storage? Somewhere to hide should your enemy penetrate the inner sanctum?). I’ve noticed previously from photographs that they’re all built in almost exactly the same way and probably similar sizes and proportions. The interior layout and stone furniture doesn’t vary much from what was evident at Skara Brae, but possibly 2-2,500 years separate them and things won’t change significantly until the Vikings and IKEA arrive. The siting of the broch is nice too, with views across a narrow stretch of water to Rousay Island. It seems that nearly all brochs and ancient settlements were situated at the waters edge and that all communication between people was by boat and, in fact, that carried on until fairly modern times. Just before we leave Mrs C points out a strange piece of stone furniture in one of the outer dwellings which can really only be interpreted as a ‘sofa’. Well I never.
Our fleeting Orkney saga is almost complete now, but we have one more crack at visiting The Ring of Brodgar. By now the sun has disappeared into a murky, flat grey sky and although that’s not conducive to interesting photography, it’s still nice to wander around the circle and some of the surrounding mounds. We know we have to make the most of this moment as this evening is going to bring heavy rain and local people say that most of August was wet and windy, so we’ve been tremendously lucky with our weather. The afternoon is spent in Kirkwall and a visit to the Museum, which is excellent and has a huge amount of prehistory on offer. The rain arrives as predicted and the next morning we head back down to St. Margaret’s Hope to get the ferry back to the Scottish mainland and start the long journey South. We’ve enjoyed our stay and it would have been good to explore some of the smaller islands and also some of the lesser monuments in this fascinating place, but that’s for another time.
Posted by A R Cane
30th October 2016ce
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