Carn Bentrych and Pen y Gaer, a tale of two ancient hill forts
It may seem shocking to readers of this blog, but I am quite partial to a bit of "ancient" history. The 19th century is a fascinating one for me, but like many folk, I am intrigued by the feint handwriting in the landscape of our forebears. Armed with an OS map, it is still relatively easy to encounter prehistoric features- despite the best attempts of farmers and developers to destroy them.
We had a couple of expeditions recently to two fine examples of hillforts, one on the Llŷn Peninsula and one nearer the fleshpots of the north coast of Wales at Llanbedr y Cennin.
Not an easy fort to find, especially since one of the charms of the Llŷn Peninsula is its winding, hedged lanes and the feeling that all roads lead to nowhere. An absence of useful road signs means that a map is essential! The grid reference is SH423416 / Sheet: 123.
We meandered towards the hill on a beautiful February day and arrived in the hamlet of Llangybi, parking outside the church. The whole place is rather quaint, but in an unselfconscious way. We walked south west along the main street and turned right along the road out towards Lon Las until we spied a footpath sign.
This leads to St Cybi's well, a delightful little spot nestling in the crook of the hill. There's much on the web about this place, suffice here to say people, in earlier times, came to the well to be cured or to get relief from a number of rheumatic ailments. The path followed a stream emanating from the well, which soon came into sight. A spring rises into a square structure to the rear and runs next door into another (nominally) square room which has alcoves for the bathers to put their belongings, or perhaps even to sit within. The pool is a square-ish feature in the middle. The roof appears to have been built up in the manner of a bee-hive above. The building to the right is much more modern, Victorian probably, and was no doubt used as a resting place for the bathers. It did strangely remind me of Bath, except that I suspect the water would taste better here...
I suppose I am a philistine, but I was keen to get going through the woods behind the spring. These were just wonderful, a mixture of elderly beech and oak. On the lower slopes, the sheepwreckers have been kept out and there has been some regeneration of the woods with other species such as hazel and birch. Further up, the lower storeys of the woods are unfenced, the ground closely cropped and the trees are not regenerating. They are still a fabulous sight- and while I do love the woolly girls, I wish they could be kept out of the woodland...there's plenty of pasture elsewhere on this site. We spent some time taking photos of the mossy rocks and trunks here. Despite the early part of the year, there were many butterflies out in the unseasonal sunshine, some Painted Ladies and the usual Red Admirals. A thrush was practicing some phrases, his song slightly rusty from the winter...probably feeling selfconscious as a couple of Robins were bugling away very professionally nearby.
Once out of the woods, we climbed quickly up to the fort. It was a surprise, much more intact than I would have expected. On the way up we followed a massive wall, probably constructed in the early C19 when Wales was carved up by landowners. Most conventional agricultural walls in Britain date to the 18th and 19th centuries, when huge areas of land began to be enclosed, that is, given private ownership and therefore requiring a boundary. The "Inclosure Acts" (notably the General Inclosure Act of 1845) resulted in huge poverty and crippling restrictions for the poor and the working classes. These acts of parliament meant that traditional rights to graze livestock on common land were suddenly ended. That caused a massive de-population of the countryside, with the poor folk heading toward urban areas, desperate for employment. Some stayed to become tenant farmers, but they were often left without rights and suffered much hardship. The severely distressed folk found themselves employed building walls, often alongside Napoleonic prisoners of war.
The wall that strides across the fort here, then does a strange arc off to the north, is one such "inclosure" wall, and is undoubtedly built with stones taken from the fortifications. But surprisingly, it doesn't detract too much from the place. I would have liked to have seen the place before though...
The ancient fortress consists of what would appear to be a smallish earthwork with two banks, augmented by a larger, less well fortified enclosure to the approx north-west.... the latter might have been for general living and the protection of animals. The innermost defence line looks almost too large, a massive, collapsed dry stone wall which was probably once much more substantial still, given the stone that must have been robbed from it by the "inclosure" wall.
Coflein quotes Frances Lynch (A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales Gwynedd p197 -1995. CADW) as stating that:
"The triple defences are probably of different dates. The innermost ring with its thick, high stone wall may be early medieval; the other two lines consist of walls and banks and are probably prehistoric with later alterations and additions".
Perhaps the place was built by prehistoric folk (there are a few feint marks in the ground indicating the presence of ring-huts), then possibly the place was repurposed in mediaeval times to serve as a local robber Baron's headquarters.
Needless to say, the views- and the sense of history- are wonderful
Pen y Gaer Hillfort
A very impressive site, and a little easier to find than Garn Bentrych! The map ref is SH750693, Landranger Map Number: 115
We drove up the narrow road, a familiar one as it is also the route to the Bwlch y Ddeufaen, with it's standing stones and slate quarries. Near the hill of Pen y Gaer you will see a turning to the left signposted for the fort- this is new and isn't on Google street view. Carry on up this until a small car park is reached.
We visited on another beautiful day. It would have been idyllic but for the farmers burning gorse. There are conflicting views on this, some sources maintaining that leaving the gorse and heather increases the risk of larger fires fuelled by the oils and dry matter in the plants. I wonder about the pollution, something very evident on our visit as the particulates hung in the air over an area of twenty miles.
We set off along the track but were soon sidelined by what appeared to be a ditch of some antiquity...later we found a toppled marker post, revealing that it was a buried electricity line- that was embarrassing! We spotted a lovely set of steps in an "inclosure" wall taking the footpath over. It was an easy scramble to the top.
To paraphrase the excellent interpretative sign board, the site was occupied in the iron age, between about 2300-1900 years ago (3000 BC to 100AD). Within the walls were 19 roundhouses, visible today as platforms cut into the slope. Excavations made here in 1906 uncovered a stone spindle whorl (for spinning wool), sling stones and evidence of iron working.
The Celtic tribe thought to occupy this fort were called the Ordovices and Pen y Gaer would have been an important power centre, probably a tribal boundary. The fort was probably attacked and destroyed by the Romans in the first century AD during their conquest of Wales- their fort at Caerhun, Canovium, was built in the valley below
The very notable feature here are the areas of stones, up ended so as to stick out from the ground and deter/hinder attackers. These are known as "Cheveaux de Frise" and can still be made out, an incredible survival.
This is a really impressive site and well-worth a visit- we will be returning when there is less smoke in the air!
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