It was a bitterly cold Saturday in early April- the weather hadn't been told that buds were on the trees and spring was supposed to be coming. We'd travelled to Llandrillo, a pretty little village between Bala and Corwen- and were walking up the steep road that wound up the slopes of Moel ty Uchaf. The plan was to see what most authorities call a ring cairn, a remarkable survivor on the summit of this dinky little hill.
It's a ring of 41 stones, (although there may have once been more) and it's around 12 metres across. The setting is stunning, even on the indifferently gloomy day that we had to work with, and it is well worth the climb. There are a couple of cists and cairns as well, and a standing stone further to the south. Petra found a small and ancient slate quarry on the way up...we were expecting something like that, as the ground had been disturbed in a way that suggested old workings. There were also some massive clearance cairns, evidently made by heavy machinery, so obviously quite modern compared to the ring cairn!
I had also read that there were many stories about the site. Some say that they have felt malevolent vibes, others that the place has a benign feeling. Not surprising, the site is dated from the bronze age and was apparently a place of ritual and sacred significance. Stories will abound in a special place like this. But perhaps there are none so strange as the claim made by locals that UFOs have been seen over the circle.
Stranger things in the Berwyns
Back in 1974 locals reported strange lights across the sky, then a colossal explosion which sent tremors through the village. It all seemed to be centred on the stone circle. One witness wrote: " something came down in the Berwyn mountains on that night, I am certain … we were visited by an object that evening..."
Ministry files show that it was taken seriously by the RAF and the police- a search and rescue sea king was scrambled and deployed. The search continued until 2pm the next day. Locals and ufologists claim that roads were sealed off and men in black were seen taking remains away, prompting claims that this might be the "Welsh Roswell". Who knows? It all seems very far-fetched. The files show that officially, nothing was found...or was it?
We, at least, got a great deal from the walk. The trackway up is lined by some beautiful trees; old oaks and later hawthorns of some age. Giant stones appear at the side of the track, placed no doubt by a glacier, although one group looked a little suspicious- I put them down as a possible bronze age feature. One of the gates below the moor whistled eerily due to the wind blowing across it's tubular steel framework. It was a surprisingly lovely sound, rather like those folk who used to run their fingers around the rims of banks of wine glasses on TV. That dates me, doesn't it? Hey, that was what ordinary folk thought was cool in the 'sixties. Somewhat enchanted by the sound, we sheltered behind the wall and had some lunch before tackling the last half mile to the circle.
The wall itself was interesting, made from small chunks of slatey rock, interspersed with tall stones set on end. Perhaps it was a local style; I am not yet familiar enough with the area around Llandrillo to say. Petra wondered where the slatey stones had come from, as the fields were remarkably bare of any stones, apart from the occasional massive erratic.
Further down from the circle on the hill, there were two cists, greatly eroded by the activities of the farmer- and a pattern of field markings which were quite pronounced on the ground. Coflein considers them to be cultivation marks, so I am glad my intuitive feeling was correct there. Someone on the Megalithic portal site thinks there may be a second circle on a site about 60 metres SE- I didn't see it when I was there, partly because it was so cold that we didn't hang about. But here's a photo on Megalithic Portal which shows that there is a circle, quite clearly.
Parking- It's best to park the car in the (free) car park in the centre of the village. Take a left turn out of the car park and then walk up the road marked as a bridle path to the right, after the war memorial.
A grumpy moment
I thought twice about mentioning this, as I don't want to be intolerant of others enjoying the hills- but again on this visit, there was the malodorous presence of two- stroke motor bikers on the hill. We were forced to the side by a group hurtling downhill without any consideration for anything. Later we had a nosey around the rather lovely village of Llandrillo and were standing at the crossroads when the bikers appeared again and stopped at the junction. The noise was incredible as the eight of them revved their engines and bellowed to each other. We picked our way out of their petrol fumed world of noise without taking them on and they roared off back up the hill to do more mischief. I wonder if making the maximum noise is part of the fun of this activity.
Apart from that smallish irritation, it was a wonderful day; perhaps it might have been more peaceful on a weekday, although apart from the bikers we only saw two other people.
Location of the stone circle: Map Ref: SJ05613717 Landranger Map Number: 125
Guide with map for locating the stone circle.
While we were wandering about, photographing some abandoned farms in Cwm Dulyn, we encountered a couple of cairns whose shape and construction seemed difficult to explain. They were very carefully built showing considerable skill. They were very old, too- judging by the lichen growth on them. Strangest of all, they were slap bang next to an enclosure wall, which also passed very closely by a row of three standing stones.
We pondered this for a while, then I remembered seeing something similar in Cwm Pennant- again very old, on rough moorland that bore the signs of ancient cultivation. I had read a blog that suggested these were ritual or funerary markers made by bronze age peoples, but somehow, that didn't seem right. I asked around and one or two people suggested that they could be field clearance cairns. This doesn't necessarily mean that they are recent, as clearance cairns can date back to the neolithic farmers. But it did seem a lot more plausible.
Of course, once you have seen something, and have an idea about it, you start to see that thing everywhere, and so it was on our next few explores where we were again roaming over moorland looking for old settlements
There are a few guidelines for recognising clearance cairns. The old ones are usually on moorland; they will be associated with ancient settlements and often are completely covered over with moss or grass. Often there will be evidence of long-abandoned cultivation such as ridge and furrow marks and ancient walls. They will also be composed of stones that can be carried easily by hand. More modern clearance cairns are made of larger stones, moved by machinery.
Sometimes, the cairns are grouped together in a circle (we found one above Dyffryn Ardudwy that was obviously ancient) and it has been suggested that there is some ritual significance in this. But generally, bronze age and earlier cairns are so common (once you start to see them) that the claim seems hard to justify.
The cairns are not to be confused with "Consumption Walls" which are sometimes of a similar age, but are thickly constructed walls, sometimes as much as ten feet in width, constructed simply to clear the surrounding fields.
The obvious reason that the stones were cleared is that the early ploughs found it hard to work in stony ground, especially since at first, the blades/mouldboards were made of wood. It would be very advantageous to get rid of as many stones as possible. Later, the stones would make a handy source of walling, or could be used as markers and boundaries.
One thing is for sure, whatever the date of some of the cairns we found, many were built with some skill. They are not just random piles of stones.
The ancient bridge of Pont Scethin sat in the middle of the moor, leading the eye to the mountains, whose deceptively smooth flanks coruscated with sunlight and shadow. It was early spring, and we were sitting on a giant boulder near the bridge, resting after the trek over from Tal-y-Bont. The Afon Ysgethin was flowing normally again after weeks of rain, chuckling and rattling over the moor. The skylarks and meadow pipits were singing, the sunshine was warm. All seemed right with the world.
I didn't know at the time, but we had been walking on the route of a bronze age trackway through the mountains- I had some suspicions after coming up by the old burial chamber of Cors y Gedol and seeing in the grass what I thought were the frail bones of ancient settlements, almost submerged by the passage of time.
Then, we'd passed the ruins of what we thought might have been a rambling sort of farm, just before the trackway made a dive for the river. Later, I found out that the farm was actually the remains of a coaching inn on the London to Harlech road. That would explain the unusual layout, but not the situation, a way off the "road". Surely, even "Jamaica Inn" was beside the road? And this place was called "Tynewydd" (the new house).
I also discovered that the route over the bridge had been a drove road, which had wound it's way on over the Bwlch y Rhigwyr (which translates as the Pass of the Drovers). While the cattle droving had been carried on for centuries, the stage coach was a relatively new development in the C18th.
To be honest, I can't imagine how a coach and horses could be driven over this terrain, or over the surface of the trackway that remains, which comprised of gigantic boulders placed with no regard for smoothness of passage, rather like the ones on the Roman Steps in Cwm Bychan. The bridge itself seems hardly wide enough to permit the passage of a coach, or a cart. Perhaps, as Rob Collister postulates in his excellent "Days To Remember" , this part of the route was undertaken on ponies. It seems logical to think that the Coaching inn was there for passengers and mails to re-alight onto a coach, plying roads more suitable for iron shod wheels down to Harlech.
Apparently, there were considerable dangers in this area from highway men and gangs of brigands. Shirley Toulson, in her fascinating "The Drover's Roads of Wales" tells of one occasion when a fashionable party of Londoners, going to a posh wedding in Harlech were fleeced of their valuables. Perhaps that is why many folk preferred to travel rather more slowly with the cattle drovers, who were, as a rule, extremely handy fellows and who travelled in numbers enough to see off the occasional robber. The drovers were sometimes armed, as well, to protect the large sums of money they carried. (They received an exemption from the Disarming Acts of 1716 and 1748). Other travellers had cause to get out of the way of the cattle drovers. The sound of the drive could be heard for miles and farmers would gather in their own cattle lest they be carried along by the driven herd, while coaches mule drivers and carters would lie well off the road until the melee had passed.
As we were sitting there beside the bridge, munching Petra's famous home-made flapjacks and supping coffee, I pondered (as you do) on the way that the landscape is a fragile palimpsest of man's activity throughout the ages. The land that we see is the result of habitation and use, even if it looks to us like "wild" country.
So it was ironic to think of one instance, in 1989 -when this place was ransacked, the bridge almost destroyed and the river banks used as a ford for massive tracked vehicles. The river became a dumping ground for used drums of diesel and the ancient trackway was transformed into a 50 metre wide scar. The perpetrators of this sacriledge were the contractors for Welsh Water Authority in the run-up (read crazed stampede) to privatisation. Luckily, outdoor writer Jim Perrin encountered the scene and sent photographer Fay Godwin some snaps of the damage. Between them, they made enough published noise to embarrass the Authority into retribution and restoration.
,Fay Godwin, in her book "Our Forbidden Land" says that although the Bronze age tracks around the bridge are lost forever, "at least the scars are now healing." I'm not so sure about that. Due to the increasing popularity of motorised trails biking, the trackways are being damaged all over again by a bunch of oblivious fools who think it's fine to pollute these quiet places with their noise and their fuel stink as they churn up the ground, making it difficult for anyone else to make progress. This time, the damage wasn't just around the bridge, either. It was visible for a mile or so up the opposite hillside. I noted, too, the tracks of farmer's quad bikes and Land Rovers, as if sheep farming in these moors was profitable or even justifiable in the 21st century. The farmer seemed to be using a different crossing beside the bridge perpetrating a new scar. And yes, I know that by law, they have the right of access as this is technically a "bridleway"...but really?
It seems as if we can't really be trusted to take care of anything in the landscape. What survives, survives because of disinterest. The moment something attracts the gaze of financial or recreational interest, all restraints are off. Certainly, SSSIs or "listings" are worth nothing, since there are not the funds to implement any policing of them.
Quietly thinking our own thoughts, and luckily not meeting any motorised trails bikers, we went carefully on our way.
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