The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

Esgair y Llwyn, Cwmdeuddwr



It could be argued that curiosity, the search for knowledge - perhaps archetypal of what it is to be human? - is, regardless of subjective merit, by no means conducive to personal happiness. Upon considering the issue in 1711, Alexander Pope famously noted: "A little learning is a dang'rous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring", thus seemingly committing the reader to a lifetime of academic labour in order to gain fulfilment from said fabled font of learning. Yeah, thanks for that. Another perceptive dude, Thomas Gray, took a seemingly alternate view in 1742 by suggesting avoiding the dilemma altogether: "...where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise". So, if I'm understanding the learned 18th Century gentlemen correctly, one can either be content in your stupidity, or a miserable 'Professor Fink-style' boffin? Hmm... given the ability to influence matters, neither sorry state of affairs appeals, to be honest. So perhaps a more centrist 'third way' is the answer: take what you do seriously, educate yourself... but don't beat yourself when one happens, inevitably, to fall 'a little short' at times? Sounds like a plan to me.

In retrospect, perhaps the most lamentable aspect of my wanderings across the length and breadth of these Isles during the past three decades has been my propensity to assume I have joined the ranks of the archaeological cognoscenti more-or-less as a matter of course. Aye, like a perpetually bemused antiquarian Stan Laurel - albeit comedic by default, not exquisite design - I find myself constantly surprised (if not indignant) when, having 'seen everything' in a given locale I'm proved, yet again, to be in error. Yeah, I guess the problem inherent in being a 'Modern Antiquarian' is one is induced into using this blasted Internet thingamajig, so ensuring a chap's learning curve is not only steep but oft verging upon the perpendicular, as Wodehouse might have put it. Consider, as cases in point, the grassy promontory Esgair y Llwyn [SN8961873373] and, a little under four miles to the east-south-east, Banc Trehesglog (SN93136893), these sites located within the inhospitable Cwmdeuddwr Hills rising to the west of Rhayader: a glance at either scale of OS mapping will divulge plenty of interest hereabouts, granted.... but nothing at said co-ordinates. Zero, zilch, nowt. So why bother? Indeed... except the browser of Coflein's web-site finds himself better informed - if not educated - with access to a cyberspace 'Jeeves' to correct those blasted faux-pas. Dash it all, what rot! There's nothing there! Ah, but I believe sir will find there is...

So... sporadic rain - albeit what the Irish might term ‘only spitting’ - greets another dawn at the head of Cwm Ystwyth; not one, to be honest, to inspire thoughts of grand deeds for the forthcoming day, the low cloud mantle obscuring the 'jaws' of the cwm issuing a stark challenge to the bleary-eyed engaged with mopping copious condensation from the interior of the windscreen. Reaching - or perhaps more accurately, fumbling blindly - for my tattered map, the memory is duly jogged.... Esgair y Llwyn, just a short drive in the opposite direction to the forbidding wall of opaque vapour. Which is handy. A navigational error, resulting in overshooting the access track to Cwm Nant-y-ffald, ensures the journey is a little longer than anticipated, but not overly so. I park at the entrance, opposite a sinuous loop effected by the Afon Elan, the watercourse seemingly unwilling to surrender its lithe youthfulness to the middle-aged 'conformity' of the Craig Goch Reservoir. Hmmm, luckily the surface is not able to render a simulacrum of the viewer. Anyway, a newly erected, crudely-painted bespoke sign - similar to others noted en-route - bars vehicular progress to the fastness of the cwm, this - along with the unusually high volume of litter - reminding the visitor that these COVID-19 times have drawn to the great outdoors an additional, most unwelcome class of vertebrate (think Fintan Stack in Father Ted) which clearly does not give a damn about the environment... or anyone else, for that matter. Needless to say my empathy - and, I would suggest, that of any reasonably objective thinker - is with the locals. Yeah, surely even those dogmatic activists welcoming such increased 'diversity' must concede everyone has a responsibility to act as a human being? So what's the plan then?

I follow the gravelly track to the north beside the gurgling Nant y Ffald, negotiating a ford to continue in a roughly north-easterly direction while embracing - save the sounds of my exertions and the ever-prevalent running water - the progressively increasing silence as the road fades from view. Quite why any tourist would consider driving up here is beyond me, but there you are. 'Stupid is as stupid does', eh Forrest? Anyway, the steep, grassy flanks of Esgair y Llwyn tower above to my left, the concern now to choose a line of ascent avoiding as much of the ubiquitous soaking bracken as possible while not overdoing the angle. I eventually decide upon the southern flank of the deep defile carved by the Trawsnant, overlooked by the great cairns of Carn-Wen and Carn Nant-y-ffald to the north, veering steeply upward to the west to gain the crest of the plateau above (Citizens Cairn'd wishing to visit these excellent sites should naturally improvise their own route... or approach from the north, as I did back in 2013).

Now, it's all very well to be informed of the existence of a cairn where none was thought to be.... but another thing entirely to actually locate it upon a billowing expanse of soggy, industrial-strength, tussocky grass at altitude. Or perhaps 'within'? Indeed, writers such as Peter Hermon have made the analogical connection between walking the Cwmdeuddwr Hills and being at sea, noting the relatively homogeneous height of the tops, separated by deep troughs. I get that, although I would suggest being 'all at sea' is often more appropriate in my case, such is the paucity of useful navigational features in mist to be found in these parts. Yeah, in a number of aspects I reckon these hills could be said to be homologous to the more obscure parts of Dartmoor: the traveller focussing to a great extent upon the 'vibe' inherent in negotiating a pathless wilderness where even a sheep track can be manna from heaven, so to speak. Suffice to say that you are almost guaranteed to have your hill, your chosen monument, to yourself for the duration. Assuming one's map reading is up to scratch, of course. And the sight of a red kite, seemingly suspended in space as it contemplates whether you are upon the menu, invigorates the soul rather than hastens an approximation of algor mortis.

I make my way towards where I reckon the monument should be, a rather serpentine - if not circuitous - route borne out of reliance upon a moth-eared 1:50k map rather than any symbolic affinity with the aforementioned Afon Elan. And there, eventually, it is... the traveller momentarily pausing, in vain despite the deteriorating weather conditions, for a thunderclap to engender a heightened sense of drama perhaps appropriate to the moment? Yeah, the surviving archaeology may well appear a little underwhelming to some, particularly to those not already immersed in the idiosyncrasies of Cwmdeuddwr. Nevertheless, the little cairn is pretty well defined to these eyes and, furthermore, features a couple of earth-fast uprights which might - or might not - represent the remnants of a former cist. Whatever the corporeal detail, the grassy stone pile does an effective job of marking a point in the landscape suitable for ponderings above and beyond the here and now. The more you see, the less you need to see, perhaps? Coflein reckons it represents:

"A low, grass-covered stone cairn positioned on a gently sloping terrace with clear views down the Elan valley to the south. The cairn is less than 0.25m high and approximately 5m in diameter, with only a few stones now protruding through the grass cover...." [J.J. Hall, Trysor, 8/9/2009]

As I sit and attempt a mental reconstruction, an approximation of what the scene may have appeared like to an engaged onlooker millennia past, the most obvious difference is the broad expanse of water to the south, a reservoir where once the river continued upon its way unimpeded by the castellated dams which are now such an imposing feature of the locale. And what of tree cover? The hills and elongated spurs of Cwmdeuddwr are green and bare nowadays - overwhelmingly, perhaps brutally so - but I understand this was not always the case? For me, the most important aspect to consider, however, is the ambience, the 'vibe' to be experienced here. OK, one assumes there were more people around back then, working the land below the sentinel ancestors' vantage points, the occasional shrill shout of a child briefly duelling with the cry of the bird of prey; however, it is not difficult to concede that, then as now, it is Nature which calls the shots - and it is her often inclement vagaries which determined the placement of this cairn in the first place. The focus of human thought when we wish to transcend those logical boundaries.

To emphasise the point a weather front duly arrives to lash the plateau with driving rain, a swirling cloak of opaque vapour contracting and expanding in turn as if representing some unstable portal to another, ethereal world fleetingly glimpsed beyond. To be fair, I'm more than happy with this one so settle down for lunch and... well... just to watch for a couple of hours. My curiosity eventually sated, the urge to move on finally manifests itself, my intention, having rejected notions of revisiting Banc Cynnydd above to the west, being to locate a small stone row a little below, and to the east, of Esgair Pen-y-Garreg, again not shown upon the map. And whatever other potential gems 'Jeeves' has up his immaculately attired sleeve.

Baulking at that steep descent - and not wishing to encounter any motorised idiots - I opt to follow the grassy flanks of Esgair y Llwyn downhill to the south-east, a good decision which, in retrospect, would serve as a less taxing ascent route. I reach the track at the ford, my own Ford - thankfully - waiting a short distance beyond. Hey, the day is yet young. Banc Trehesglog it is, then.
21st March 2021ce
Edited 22nd March 2021ce

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