Friday, 28 July 2017

Walking the Golden Road

“Everywhere you feel the presence of the megalithic tomb-builders, of the iron Age warriors who piles stones for the great hill forts and of kindly and absent-minded Celtic saints.”

I can remember hearing the words of Winford Vaughan-Thomas on the radio when I was little, and he was already old – he’d been a decorated 2nd WW correspondent – but his first love was the Welsh countryside, and above, he’s talking about the Pembrokeshire Preseli Hills, locally called Mynydd Preseli. 

Myndd means mountain, because the Welsh have a flexible view of what makes a mountain. If the place is high and fairly inaccessible, rugged and wild, often lost in cloud and offering breathtaking views to climbers, that’s enough to call it a mountain, even if it doesn’t quite make the obligatory 600 metres.

Vaughan-Thomas had a love of the famous ridgeway walk called the Golden Road, which runs along the spine of the Preseli Hills, Anyone who has a passion for the ancient past, fabulous walking or stunning views, would love it. 

A month ago, I blogged about a Summer Solstice celebration we held at a Pembrokeshire stone circle called Gors Fawr. While were enjoying our picnic, some of the company told me they planned to walk the Golden Road. 

“It’s seven miles,” I complained. “Too long for me.” But as I gazed up at the ‘Dragon’s Back’, one of the possible quarries from which stones were believed to have been taken to Stonehenge 4000 years ago, and Carn Bica, where a second Neolithic stone monument stands, I just couldn’t resist. Both of these would be on our route. 

The Dragon's Back 
We set out on a Sunday in late June at 10am. The weather was perfectly awful, a misty drizzle that hid the path ahead. “Should we do this,” I asked. “Aren’t you supposed to avoid mountains when the mist comes down?”

Everyone reassured me. This spinal road is wide, sometimes almost half a mile of flat high moorland, with a marked path. No danger of getting lost or falling off the edge. The most treacherous thing would be the boglands, areas of soggy ground that can trick you if you do stray from the designated path.

And so the seven of us shouldered our backpacks and set out from the village of Rosebush, with Foel Eryr, or ‘Place of the Eagle’, at our backs. Eagles are no longer seen in Wales, but buzzards and red kites were gliding overhead, and they are majestic enough for me. At the summit of Foel Eryr there is a Bronze Age burial carn, marking, perhaps, the resting place of men and women who were important to that clan or tribe. We turned from that summit to the Golden Road and were soon walking alongside the northern edge of the Pantmeanog Forest, and as the pine forestry cleared, we looked across to the highest point in the Preselis, Foel Cwmcerwyn. Half hidden in the mist, it’s 1,759 feet high, making it a brilliant subject for a film like The Man Who Went up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain. It really would only need a few more metres of rock.
The Golden Road may have been walked for 5,000 years or more. It was one of hundreds of high ridgeway trails which people and animals used to avoid the dense forests, impassible rivers and difficult and dangerous terrain at lower levels…not to mention unfriendly locals. Some believe the Golden Road was a trade superhighway, along which gold mined in the Wicklow mountains in Ireland was carried south east as far as Wessex…to the very place where Stonehenge still stands to this day. If you have ever visited the Dublin Museum, you will have seen examples of the Neolithic gold jewellery, that both men and women of high status would have worn on their special occasions, and the Britons wanted to trade for some of that, I’m sure. 

We ate up the miles, walking mostly on flat high ground. As the mist began to lift, we could look left, to the south, and there was Foel Feddau, or Bald Grave, a high trig-point with yet another Bronze Age buried carn. Looking right, we tried to make out Castell Henlyll, a large Iron Age fort sitting high up some miles to the north. Castell Henlyll has been rebuilt to closely resemble the original settlement where the Celtic Demetae tribe lived 2,000 years ago. In fact, it’s unique in Britain – the only reconstruction on an exact Iron Age site. It’s well worth a visit. Not only have they built several perfect roundhouses, including the chief’s impressive dwelling, but they run events, for children of all ages, day workshops where you can train as a warrior, learn woodturning or help build a wattle and daub wall. We love going there, and recently we gathered near a roundhouse fire to hear Robin Williamson play, sing, and tell tales from bygone ages.

After another hour’s walking we stopped for water, leaning on a line of rocky outcrops called the Cerrig Marchogion…Rocks of the Knights. In a grassy cwm below, the myths and legends of Wales tells us, King Arthur fought a bloody battle with a fierce and enchanted boar caller the Twrch Trwyth. They needed a comb which he held in his stiff boar hair to complete the tasks they had been given by a giant. We were leaning against the gravestones of the slain knights. Of course, these are natural outcrops, but I could certainly understand why legend tells that this was an ancient graveyard, high in the hiils. 

All at once, the mist dissipated and the sun shone golden on the valleys below. We gazed down, trying to make out Gors Fawr, the stone circle where we had spent the Summer Solstice in balmy weather, and planned this walk. 

Carn Bica
Finally, we reached the rocky tor of Carn Bica. We sat to eat a picnic, but were keen to move on, because we could see Bedd Arthur, a ring of stones in the shape of an eye – or a longish horseshoe – or a boat – or, more interestingly, the shape of the inner bluestone circle at Stonehenge. It’s only one of many places said to be the grave of King Arthur, but Arthur lived around 600 CE while this monument dates back to Neolithic times.

Just below it is Carn Meini, its bluestone rock eroded into jagged shapes that do look like a dragon’s back, it’s local name. For many years it was believed that the stones in the inner circle at Stonehenge were quarried here – a type of bluestone, the so-called ‘spotted dolerite’ – and if not quarried for that stage of Stonehenge, then certainly lifted by glacial action and taken close enough to the building site. However, this spotted dolerite is not the only type of bluestone found at Stonehenge. There are also bluestones called rhyolites. Recently, geologists from

the National Museum Wales have been digging at another outcrop in the Preselis.  This is Craig Rhosyfelin, less than a mile north of Care Meini. What they found there excited them. Because bluestone outcrops is formed in huge slabs, they think it would have been possible to break off ‘monolith-sized’ slabs by hammering wooden wedges into cracks and wetting them thoroughly. As the wood swelled, the slab would simply break off, ready to be carted away.
Intriguingly, scientists have discovered that some bluestones in the Preselis give off metallic sounds if they are tapped with a smaller stone. The bluestones at Stonehenge also have this propensity. Were they first chosen for some ritual musical reason? We they ‘played’ in the circle? Almost half the stones at Gors Fawr are also bluestone (not sure which sort), and I can’t wait to go back with a hammer-shaped stone to try them out.

Close to the path’s end, we passed Foel Drygarn, a perfectly rounded hill rising out of the moorland.  It was tempting to digress from our path and climb it. There’s an early Iron Age fortress (around 350 BCE) with a double ramparts and ditches still visible. And right at the top are three Bronze Age burial carns. But we must have all been more than ready for the last two miles to the end, because no one took the diversion. I will do it, though, sometime soon! 

As we passed a final fir plantation, coming down towards Afon Taf, and the town of Crymch, we still felt like we were a inhabiting another world. We’d passed through mythological stories, enchanted lands, ancient history and remote but beauteous landscapes. Not once, along the seven miles, had we seen another human soul.  As we reached the cars we’d left at the far end of the walk, we could not have felt more content. All we needed to do was sit in the sun with a beer in our hands. So it was off to the Nags Head in Abercych for a final celebration.

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