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Gower Power I – Rhossili Down 20.3.2012

A day off work and the weather maps show a largely dry England and Wales. Prohibitive peak time fares preclude a trip to sunny Derbyshire, so I turn my attention to South Wales, despite the possibility of “drizzle on the hills”. I’ve yet to visit the Gower peninsula, despite the apparent embarrassment of riches on offer there. I intend to put this right today.

From Swansea bus station, a number of buses head into the peninsula, providing good links to the major sites (and an “all day” ticket can be bought for £4.50 at the time of writing). The main decision then is what to see and what to leave out. I plump for a bus all the way to Rhossili, right at the southwestern tip, near to Worm’s Head. This will allow easy access to the cairns of Rhossili Down and also the two Sweyne’s Howes burial chambers. From there, well, see how it goes. Armed with a copy of Wendy Hughes’ “Prehistoric Sites of The Gower & West Glamorgan” (Logaston Press 1999) there’s certainly plenty of options.

The bus ride is very enjoyable and passes signs for the Parc le Breos chambered tomb, as well as running through the hamlets of Penmaen and Nicholaston, meaning that both Penmaen burial chamber and Nicholaston long cairn should be readily accessible too. We then run alongside the Cefn Bryn ridge, with Maen Ceti hidden over the crest. I’m strongly reminded of West Penwith in Cornwall, where sites are packed into a small area, with the sea providing the backdrop. I’m already hooked by the time the bus reaches its terminus at Rhossili. A keen wind adds chill and the skies are leaden, but you can’t complain when the alternative is a day at work.

Old Castle (Rhossili) — Fieldnotes

Rhossili boasts some shops and a National Trust shop/info place (closed today), plus public toilets (handy). It also boasts a small cliff fort, a short, easy stroll from the village along the coast path leading to Worm’s Head.

Old Castle fort is a small, semi-circular earthwork perched above near vertical cliffs and occupying a small flat headland. The banks back onto the coastal path. At some point in the more recent past a building or structure was built inside the enclosure, all that’s left now is some rusting posts. Worm’s Head can be seen to the west, the wide sweep of Rhossili Bay to the north. The tide is out at present and in the distance the promontory fort of Burry Holms is currently attached to the shore, although it will sever its connection later as the tide comes in. As I walk along the cliff top inside the fort, a cloud of jackdaws explodes noisily from the cliff face below me, as wild and windswept a perch as you could find.

Along its western side, the rampart has been badly damaged by what appears to be quarrying, leaving a lumpy, bumpy area in place of the smooth banks surrounding the rest of the site.

It’s a pretty fine start to the trip, but there’s much more to see. I briefly consider walking down to Worm’s Head itself, but decide that a coastal walk to Port Eynon deserves another day. Instead I turn back to Rhossili and the high down above it.

Rhossili Down — Fieldnotes

Back in the village, a path leads round the back of the church, past a modern standing stone and upwards to the gorse-clad Down. It’s a pretty stiff pull upwards, but thankfully quite short. Worth pausing to look back at the excellent views of the peninsula’s south coast as well, where a number of small cliff forts cluster above the waves.

The main group of cairns clusters around the trig-topped Beacon. Some are difficult to make out under the prevailing heather, but this is nevertheless a terrific group with wonderful views.

The first cairn encountered (Cairn IV) lies to the right (east) of the path. Apart from a few stones protruding from the heather, it’s not obvious. Some of the stones in the centre are substantial, but it’s probably the least impressive of the group.

The next cairn however, you can’t miss. The Beacon is a large stony mound with a trig pillar mounted onto its top. It has a possible/probable kerb of large blocks, particularly apparent on the northern side. It sits on the highest point of the Down and in fact of the whole Gower peninsula, so inevitably it has terrific views. The sea lies below to the west, while to the north and east the other main hills of the peninsula are all laid out, Llanmadoc Hill to the NNE, the hillforted Hardings Down closer at hand, then across the centre of the peninsula to the Cefn Bryn ridge. But the views stretch much further, even on this overcast day. To the northwest the round tops of the Preseli Mountains can be made out across the bay, while to the northeast the familiar shapes of Y Mynydd Du are visible, from Garreg Lywd to Fan Foel, then the view stretches further to Fforest Fawr and the highest central Beacons, Corn Du and Pen y Fan. Wow. Another bit of the Wales jigsaw falls into place.

The path heads northwards, downhill. The next cairn – Cairn III - sits on the right-hand side of the path and is a fairly prominent mound, buried in heather. There is an obvious central crater to help ease any doubts of identification.

To find Cairn VII, I have to head off the path, eastwards across the thankfully low heather. This one is less impressive, not much more than a slight pile of stones. The blocks do have an attractive pink tinge though and are liberally studded with quartz pebbles. The Beacon and Cairn III are silhouetted prominently against the skyline from here.

Back up to the path and onwards to the most impressive cairn of the group. Much lower than the Beacon, what it lacks in views Cairn II makes up for in stony glory. An almost contiguous ring of stones, stood up on edge, marks the extent of the cairn. You can’t miss this one! It’s a bit battered and disturbed, but a fine example of a ring cairn nonetheless.

The path continues on to Cairn I, covered in heather and quite low. Underneath a wide spread of stones shows that this one would have been massive. On the north side there are the remains of a clear kerb, again using fairly substantial stones. The material of the mound itself has been spread outwards, some spilling over the kerb into the surrounding heather.

The OS map shows one last cairn in the group, the “Ring Cairn”. This one lies further down the slope than the others, off the ridge. It is still fairly easy to locate though, due to the light colour of the stones against the dark sea of heather. A number of orthostatic blocks protrude from a clear ring, reminding me very much of the embanked circles of the Peak District. I could almost be on Stanton Moor! From here, Sweyne’s Howes is clearly visible to the north and it’s in this direction that I head next.

As I continue down the slopes towards the burial chamber, I notice a suspiciously round shape in the heather to my right. There’s nothing shown on the OS map, but it’s definitely a manmade something or other. Closer inspection reveals what appears to be the low remains of a very large cairn. There’s not much of a mound and in fact it could easily be a platform cairn, or a larger embanked ring cairn, with a raised rim around a shallower interior. Post-visit investigation of Coflein reveals this to be Cairn V.

From here it’s an easy cut across the slopes to Sweyne’s Howes.

Sweyne Howes (south) — Fieldnotes

Sweyne’s Howes South is a right old state. A roughly circular or oval stone scatter surrounds a jumble of much larger slabs and blocks, some of which remain upright. This is an ikea flatpack of a site, but the assembly instructions were blown away and shredded by the wind long ago. Despite the slight melancholic air, it retains a powerful atmosphere, sat on its heathery slopes, with views of sea and mountain. The better-preserved northern chamber is close at hand and adds to the general feeling of a complex landscape, tantalisingly close yet just eluding the fingertips.

In my excitement, I utterly fail to see the ring cairn that lies to the south east of this megalithic puzzle, so a return trip is assured anyway.

Sweyne Howes (north) — Fieldnotes

Instead I turn my attentions northwards, to the sibling monument. This one is much more intact, the chamber almost complete but for the slipped capstone, recalling Mulfra Quoit (I get a very similar feeling here to being on the West Penwith moors). Its general shape and proximity to the wrecked southern chamber also brings to mind Dyffryn Adudwy in North Wales, although I’ve never been there. The capstone, in its semi-fallen state, is a heart-shaped block. The stony spread stretches away down the slope, so it appears that the chamber was at the end of an oval mound, rather than in its centre. There’s no indication of a kerb. A tranquil spot, no-one comes to disturb me here as I sit for a while, although now there are walkers about on the ridge above. No-one comes looking for the geocache in the chamber, either. Someone else’s hobby, that. I don’t need a geocache to get me here, the stones speak loudly enough to draw my attention.

Rhossili Down — Fieldnotes

Eventually I head on, with so much more to see. I head back up to the northern end of the ridge, called “Bessie’s Meadow” on the map. There is another cairn shown, as well as a burnt mound, an enigmatic type of site that I have yet to encounter.

I’m not sure if I find the cairn, although I think I have. I’ve certainly found a mound of stones, but it appears to be part of a much larger low bank of stones. Perhaps another very large platform or ring-cairn? I hunt about for anything else, but eventually give up. More post-visit Cofleining shows that the cairn is overlaid by the wall of Bessie’s Meadow. Perhaps this was the bank of stones I found?

I head north to look for the burnt mound, but in truth I haven’t got much hope of finding it. The heather is dense and I’m not sure there would be enough to make identification possible, so I don’t waste any more time. I’ve still yet to encounter one of these then!

Instead I head eastwards, until I hit a bridleway running north-south along the slopes of the Down.

Rhossili Down settlement — Fieldnotes

The OS map shows the bridleway running right past a hut circle and what appears to be a semi-circular feature either side of it. Worth a look anyway. The bridleway crosses increasingly wet ground and it becomes apparent that these lower slopes are waterlogged and boggy, a complete contrast to the dry heather of the ridge above. But at length I reach the hut circle. It’s quite impressive, although wrecked; the walls appear to be made of double thickness of stones, almost creating a “cavity wall” effect. On either side, a low bank of stones stretches away, very like the robbed-down walls of a Dartmoor pound. The affinities between the sites on this peninsula and the southwest of England feel strong.

From here a footpath heads southeast across increasingly wet terrain, towards Sluxton farm. The map shows a “W” for a well here and sure enough, a small standing stone (maybe a metre tall) protrudes through the reedy grass to mark its position. There’s no mention of this on Coflein, and the stone could be relatively recent, but perhaps the builders of the hut circle on the slopes above knew this water source too?

I finally leave the Down and head inland, on my way to the hillforted top of Hardings Down. What a place!
thesweetcheat Posted by thesweetcheat
25th March 2012ce
Edited 25th March 2012ce

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