The Golden Road
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.”