The Golden Road

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Discover -

WHEN THE AU­TUMN nights drew dark, in a time be­fore cen­tral heat­ing and Net­flix, our an­ces­tors would have gath­ered to­gether around the warmth of the fire and told tales, and some land­scapes in par­tic­u­lar seemed to have snared their imag­i­na­tion.

Take the Pre­seli Hills which round up to al­most 1800 feet to the south of Newport and form the only in­land part of the Pem­brokeshire Coast Na­tional Park. They fea­ture heav­ily in myth and in his­tory. The Mabino­gion sets a bat­tle be­tween King Arthur and the great boar Twrch Tr­wyth on the slopes be­low Foel Cwm­cer­wyn. The line of stones at nearby Cer­rig­mar­cho­gion mark the graves of his knights that per­ished that day, and the eye-shaped ring of boul­ders at Bedd Arthur is said to be the monarch’s fi­nal rest­ing place (al­though we should say it’s one of many places in Bri­tain to make that claim). A night spent on the out­ly­ing Pre­seli peak of Carn­ingli will see you wake a mad­man or a poet, or so the leg­end goes. Nu­mer­ous sum­mits are topped with Iron Age hill forts, in­clud­ing the strik­ing one on Foel Dry­garn. And most fa­mously of all, blue­stones from th­ese hills form the in­ner ring at Stone­henge 140 miles away in Wilt­shire. How did they get there? Why? What was so spe­cial about th­ese stones and th­ese hills?

The fog swirls as I ap­proach Carn Menyn ( just the sort of au­tum­nal mist Keats would have liked) thin­ning just enough to re­veal a rum­pus of rocks an­gling up from the smooth curve of the hill­top. This spot was long thought to be the source of Stone­henge’s in­ner cir­cle, al­though more re­cent re­search sug­gests the ex­act quarry might have been just over the hill at Carn Goe­dog. Both are formed from blue­stone though, and up close I can see the rock’s sharp an­gles have been sanded smooth by the wind and rain. When freshly cracked though, or pol­ished to a shine, its dark do­lerite can sparkle with quartz like the night sky. It can also make a metal­lic sound when struck, like a bell. Maybe this is why our an­ces­tors prized this stone.

A mil­len­nium-cel­e­bra­tion at­tempt to re­con­struct the jour­ney to Wilt­shire got as far as the bot­tom of the Bris­tol Chan­nel. The team man­aged to drag a stone on a log-sled from the Pre­seli Hills to the coast and four miles out to sea, be­fore the cra­dle snapped and the boul­der sank. Dredged up by me­chan­i­cal cranes, it then sat on the quay­side for years, be­fore be­ing moved to the Na­tional Botan­i­cal Gar­dens at Car­marthen on a flat-bed lorry. Divers did re­port a num­ber of blue­stones down there though, so maybe our an­ces­tors strug­gled too.

Maybe it re­ally was Mer­lin the Ma­gi­cian who got the rocks to Stone­henge, as Ge­of­frey of Mon­mouth sug­gested in the 12th cen­tury. Per­haps a glacier car­ried and de­posited them in Wilt­shire when the ice melted, as oth­ers have the­o­rised. Or per­haps, as the very lat­est re­search sug­gests, our an­ces­tors were sim­ply that in­ge­nious: re­cent tests on skele­tons buried at the henge trace them to West Wales, sug­gest­ing they re­ally did carry the stones there some­how.

Carn Menyn lies a short de­tour from an an­cient trail known as the Golden Road, which I’ve traced west from Llain­banal along the spine of the Pre­seli Hills. It’s thought to have been trod­den for over 5000 years, a clear ridge­way above the tan­gle of trees be­low. Just imag­ine bat­tling through mile on mile of path­less twisted wood­land like Ty­canol, with added wolves and maybe foot­pads, and the ap­peal of the wide-open high-ground be­comes clear. And its name? It could be a nod to the gleam­ing colours of the au­tum­nal grass, or more likely to the trade route this once was, as gold mined in Ire­land’s Wick­low Moun­tains was col­lected from the nearby ports and walked across the hills and on to Wes­sex.

The trail of gold con­tin­ues to the pass at Bwlchg­wynt, but the lo­gis­tics of a lin­ear walk in th­ese re­mote hills mean it’s sim­pler to re­turn along the ridge from the Bronze Age burial cairn on Foel Fed­dau, hav­ing ticked off ev­ery site of myth and his­tory de­scribed ear­lier – Bedd Arthur, Cer­rig­mar­cho­gion, a view down the slopes of King Arthur’s bat­tle. It’s a plea­sure rather than a bore to head back the same way. It gives a sec­ond, fresh per­spec­tive over moors bur­nished bronze with bracken and rich with a fra­grance of damp peat: the sort of scene you might have dreamt of in the dessi­cated days of this sum­mer gone. And there are plenty of rocky out­crops to ex­plore just off path too, as you wind your way back through the soft, au­tum­nal mists.

“... over moors bur­nished bronze with bracken and rich with a fra­grance of damp peat.”

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