Walk of the week: Strange stones, hail and sunshine in the Black Mountains Brecon Beacons

Today’s guest walk in the Brecon Beacons National Park is by Simon Powell, Black Mountains Photography. All photos have been provided by Simon and are copyright Black Mountains Photography.

Length of route: 14.3 miles
Starting point: SO 310 221
Suitable for: Walking
Maps: OS Explorer Map OL13 Brecon Beacons (Eastern area)
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I am a closet stone head (bold statement I know). I find myself being drawn to strange and obscure piles of stones. The Black Mountains in the Brecon Beacons has these stone piles scattered throughout, dotted along the many ridges and hidden deep in the valleys. From Neolithic burial mounds to Iron Age hill forts and the castles of the rich and famous; Hywel the good king of all Wales, and not to mention the last castle standing of the area Castle Dinas, which was the site of many a bloody battle between the English, Normans and eventually destroyed by a bunch of Welsh warriors from the Owain Glydwr posse in the early 15th century.

Its these piles of rock and the many stories that very often keep my little mind occupied whilst I am waiting for the sun to set or the clouds to clear during a photography session. It was during a late night Twitter chat that I got asked “do you know where the Longtown stone circle is?”. Well this sort of tweet late at night makes one jump up from the wood burner chair and rush to the computer and fire up the maps and various stoner sites and spread out my old OS map on the kitchen table like a scene from the A team!

So, obviously, I do not know of this mysterious Longtown stone circle and that’s why we are here today, but to make it interesting, and get our heads into the mindset of a Welsh Indiana Jones or Lara Croft (depending on your age) we are going to visit a couple of known Cairns first to get the eye in so to speak.

Starting at the Queens Head pub lets head for a brief visit to Twyn Y Gaer Hill Fort as this commands fantastic views of the day’s walking and certainly focuses the mind on life in the hills throughout the ages. I won’t dwell on this fantastic Fort as I am preparing a full article just purely dedicated to the site, so please resist temptation to do too much research yourself at this stage. Out in the distance we see the Ffwddog Ridge rising up with its many hill,s Bal Mawr and Chwarel Y Fan.

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Those who have walked my route “The Queen, The Monk & Dykes Revenge” will know the first stone we come to, Dial Garreg or the fantastically named “Stone of Revenge” – big name, little stone. More of the story surrounding this stone can be found on the blog that accompanies the above mentioned walk. Skirting past this megalith, and I use the term slightly tongue in cheek, we head for our first cairn.

Now a cairn is basically a pile of stones and covers a very broad section of monuments from burial tombs to track markers for walkers to the shape-shifting piles of stone seen on many of the hill summits. It’s the moss-covered, knee-deep in heather cairns that are going to occupy us on our little adventure today. The cairns that time has forgot, the cairns that are situated with some of the finest views, the places where when you are stood a top on the pile of rocks you also agree that “yeah if I was to be buried up here, this is the place”.

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If you are of a analytical or archaeologically mindset this might not be the blog for you, but I can recommend you visit the Pandora’s box that is http://www.themodernantiquarian. I am not that interested in exact measurements or classifications, as let’s be honest, the people who built most of the cairns up here didn’t have tape measures or diagrams to follow, they just built them because this is “THE” place, or for other reasons that remain hidden in the secrets of the cairns. This cairn is 24 paces in circumference and 8 paces in diameter and has what looks to be the side of a cist just slightly revealed.

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A cist is a form of coffin or stone box, (a better example we will see a bit later) but for now lets just imagine what might be inside. This cairn has an exceptional view down the Vale of Eways overlooking the Darren at Cwmyoy and out towards the Holy Mountain. The views down the valley and the somewhat inaccessible nature coupled with a handful of springs nearby and several natural flat plateaus does lead to the notion that this was perhaps the burial site for a tribe/family of Neolithic Hill dwellers. Even though this cairn does feature on Ordnance Survey maps, I can’t seem to find any info, so from this point on we shall refer to it as Graig Ddu Cairn.

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A little north and along our route we find what looks like the remains of a building sheep shelter with adjoining enclosure on one of the plateaus even though the footprint is small, I would imagine it has been robbed of stone and built and been rebuilt many, many times but, with a bit of imagination it’s got the feeling of somewhere you could live and work. All that’s left of the enclosure is a small raised earth/stone bank in a circle, some 150 paces by 150 paces. I really fancy camping at this location at some point during the summer but for the sun rising at the bottom of the Vale Of Ewyas being up here close to the winter Solstice will be needed.

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Onto our next cairn we follow the sheep tracks around the side of Graig Ddu with great views across. Up the length of the Vale of Eways we come across a line of motley constructed grouse butts where men with guns hide to shoot at the red grouse that are made to fly over their heads. Follow this line up and then around the head of Cwm Bwchel and onto our next cairn which at this point you might just about work out if your here in winter as the stones do glisten under a low sun.

Upon arrival at the cairn, which has been pulled apart, you notice the stone slabs which form the cist. What was deposited in the coffin has long since gone but the stones are very substantial and, I guess, are probably as deep as they are long.

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The location of this cairn does leave me slightly puzzled as I don’t really get a feeling of it being a special place or of it being prominent in the landscape as the views are not that spectacular. Perhaps further investigation from the summit of Bal Mawr of the area might reveal clues to its importance hidden in the topography. Or perhaps it’s just where the occupant fell and died. If you do visit this hidden cairn and have a theory as to why it is positioned here I would love to hear it.

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Now we must brace ourselves for the journey into the realm of the postcode and signs, but before we do, you have a decision to make: you can either drop down the well-trodden path that accompanies the Bwchel down the valley towards llanthony or take the lesser route (which I did on the GPS route that accompanies this blog). Once at the River Honddu quickly rush through the Abbey ignoring it’s many attraction and head up towards the Hatterrall ridge as this is where our prize is to be found; this is where the elusive Longtown stone circle is hiding waiting to be discovered, photographed and understood.

Now, if you started just before sunrise this spot is probably the perfect place to break for lunch and survey the mornings work. The trickle of running water and the fantastic use of stone slabs in shoring up the mountain path really gives this spot a sense of place with Twyn Y Gaer Hill fort and Pen Y Fal in the distance and the unsightly Abbey tucked out of view. I defy you not to get the camera out and capture the view.

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Refreshed, refuelled and with a new-found vigour, it is time to tackle the last climb of the day. Upon breaking the ridge of the Rhiw Arw head towards Wirral Cairn. The Sweet Cheat writes in “Prehistoric Sites of Herefordshire” – George Children and George Nash (1994 Logaston Press):

From these two monuments are outstanding views across the whole of Herefordshire. The Malverns can be seen 50km to the east. Directly below lies the Olchon Valley where, in the 1930s, two Bronze Age burial cists were discovered. The cist burials and cairn and stone circle on the Black Mountains are, in our opinion, directly related.
The cairn and stone circle are approximately 30m from the Welsh border and Offa’s Dyke Path. The centre of the cairn has, in the past, been excavated and therefore is recognisable by its doughnut shape. Small stones and locally quarried rock are clearly visible around the sides of the cairn, The stone circle is at present covered by undergrowth, and lies approximately 10m from the cairn. Use of the track that separates both monuments has eroded away the topsoil to reveal an ancient (Bronze Age and earlier) surface. Very little information exists about either of these monuments.

The whole area is a mass of earthworks, mounds, cairns and knee high heather some of which does warrant a visit even if not the infamous Longtown stone circle. I am unsure what to think of this site it’s very large, has paths running in between mounds with what appear to be well, I don’t know have a look at the image below and decide for yourself. This has the feelling of a place of industry there is a lot of really nice split building stone further south along the path but I do wonder how quarried stone was taken off the hill efficiently.

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Upon reaching Wirral cairn I broke off the path and headed onto the English side of the hill as can be seen from my GPS track. Again the area is awash with ditches, mounds and potential candidates for the circle. I have purposely stayed to the eastern side of Wirral cairn as I want to leave enough unexplored for future visit. As you can probably guess my search was unsuccessful this time, but I do however feel that the English side of Offas Dyke is the place to find the stone circle, perhaps marking the source of Hatterrall spring (or one of the other springs in which I did find toad spawn – surely the highest place I have ever found spawn). Please remember that the area is renowned for changeable weather and even though the day started off under beautiful sunshine the walk back at dusk during a hail storm was challenging so be prepared and please be careful.

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The walk back takes you along Offas Dyke and down on the Pen Twyn Hill Fort. The secretive fort that not many know about and even less will talk about but that little gem can wait for another day. I wish you great success in finding the Longtown stone circle and if you do, please let me know. You can find me on all social media platforms, or we might even bump into each other out on the hill one day.

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