Sunday, 23 November 2014

Meini Hirion (Druid's Circle), near Penmaenmawr

I have wanted to go and find this stone circle for a long time, having heard about an impressive stone circle up above Penmaenmawr on the coast. Previously I've only seen very small stone circles in my area of the Conwy Valley, with stones no more than about a foot high. Y Meini Hirion really is a notable circle, though. It's no Avebury, but it does have stones as much as five feet high, and there are eleven stones still erect (of thirty original stones that were standing, according to the Snowdonia Heritage website. This website contains a nice brief history and description of the site, while the Megalithic Portal site contains less history but more photographs and location information.) The circle was apparently erected between about 1450–1400 BC, but it could be much older. Two cremation burials of children estimated to be in their very early teens were found during excavations in the 1950s. The circle is not in isolation. A trackway runs to the side of the circle, probably pre-dating its construction, and the hillside about is littered with other prehistoric monuments, with a ring cairn perhaps about fifty feet away to the west (I'm not good on estimating distances), and a second stone circle (low and invisible from Y Meini Hirion - we didn't see it at all) a little to the south. There is also a neolithic axe factory nearby, and various other monuments, all listed on the Megalithic Portal.

We approached the circle from Llanfairfechan, which by all accounts is a longer route than from Penmaenmawr, but perhaps a more gentle one. We needed the sat-nav to get up to the path by car, but after that it was a quite straightforward walk. Most of the way was along a grassed-over farm track (you enter the fields through the farmyard, which had a rather attentive sheepdog on duty) which was relatively easy to traverse, and not very wet. It's a very pretty walk with views over to the Menai Straights and Anglesey and then to Llandudno and the Great Orme as you get closer to Penmaenmawr, and took less than an hour each way, including dawdling to take photographs. The circle is off to the right of the track, though, and we spent a bit of time wondering if we were in the right place before we found it. My husband saw one of the stones on the brow of the hill, and so we found it. The circle is rather tucked away, though, hiding behind a little ridge, so that it's more or less sheltered from views of the coast.

The view from where we started, up above Llanfairfechan, back towards the hills in the west.
The path starts off along a rather idyllic farmer's drive.
The track becomes rougher, but the views get more stunning. You can see down towards the Menai Straights and Anglesey.
This is rather a lovely shallow valley leading down towards the coast.

This is a lovely old track and reminds me of the Roman Road (or adjacent track) through Bwlch y Ddeufaen above where I live. I assume due to its depth in the ground it has quite a bit of age.

Lovely dry stone wall and mountain beyond.

Typical Welsh sheep.
A little square enclosure in the middle of a field, with an old bath (you get lots of old baths being used as water troughs) and some other stuff. Hard to know if  it's an old dwelling or a sheep fold or some such thing.

Our first look at something that may be prehistoric. I really don't know, but it looked like a deliberate arrangement of stones.

This stone appeared to have some kind of circular carving on it, but again, it's hard to tell if this is something of significance or just a coincidence.

Those stones from the eastern end. The one with the circular pattern is the one in the middle jutting up.

Some more anomalous heaps of stones, possibly ancient, possibly more modern. It's very hard to reconcile what we saw on the ground with looking at maps later.

Again, another anomalous feature with lots of very large stones spread very far apart. Is this some kind of very wide circle or just some stones on a hill?

A couple more of those large stones that appeared to be in a big circle or something.

And more of those stones.

Eventually we got to where we were were sure Y Meini Hirion should be, but were failing to find it. You can see the Great Orme in the background. I'm not sure which mountain we're looking at in the centre here.

Eventually my husband spotted what looked like a single standing stone up on a ridge to the right of the track. We made our way up there to find this ring cairn, with Y Meini Hirion just beyond to the right.

The rather jumbled looking ring cairn near the stone circle.

The ring cairn from another angle.

And from another angle. I assume the two horizontal stones on the left were placed like this rather than fallen.

Yet another view of the ring cairn, looking rather bigger and more impressive.

And then we approached the circle itself, an impressive wide ring with a lot of space in the centre. There appears to be something of a bank and ditch around the outside.

One of the stones had some rather impressive cracks or marks on it. Someone had also been up and painted a crucifix on one of them in silver metallic paint, which is either vandalism or a nice continuity of using religious spaces, depending on how you look at it.

Some kind of deliberate arrangement of stones here, I think. If only I were an archaeologist, although on my one foray into archaeology in an academic context I was labelled as pessimistic.

Again, that arrangement of stones, the five foot tall one with two smaller roughly spherical ones either side and a smaller roughly spherical one behind must be deliberate.

Another view of the circle.

And another, looking back west, I think.

I seem to be a bit obsessed with this stone. Is it very phallic or is it just me?

From the south side (roughly), looking north. The circle really is hidden from the view of the sea, and the path down below, by the little rise of land to the north.

I'm not entirely sure if this is the remains of a ditch round the circle or just a path, or a ditch that has been used as a path.

From this side of the circle you do get a rather nice view over towards the Great Orme (site of a Bronze Age copper mine) and Llandudno.

Well, if the other stones looked rather phallic, this one looks like it's giving someone the finger.

A full view of the circle from the north-western side (the side closer to the sea, at least.)

A final view of the ring cairn as we made our way back home.

Looking back toward the circle on the way back, and you can see why it was rather hard to find. It's up behind the hills on the right, not visible from the path at all.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Conwy Mountain, Conwy Valley

Today was a beautiful winter's day, with a clear blue sky and brilliant sunshine, so we decided to walk up Conwy Mountain, or Mynydd y Dref. I've only been up it once before, earlier this year. The mountain always seemed rather strange to me, a bit alien and different from the mountains I'm used to further up the valley. It always seems a very red place, often covered in the red of dried bracken, with a different ecology than the hills further inland, and a lot of the slopes around there are covered in scree.

To my shame, after living here for thirty years, I didn't know until that first trip up the mountain this autumn that there was an Iron Age hillfort, Caer Seion, up there. Looking at the aerial view on the link here I think there's a lot more to see than we saw today. It's always hard to get a grasp of these things from ground level, but we explored the most visible bit. It must have been an amazing place to live, with practically 360 visibility, up above the sea.

There used to be another hillfort on top of Penmaenmawr mountain very nearby, one of the largest in Europe, but horrifyingly this was entirely quarried away by the 1920s. I did wonder standing up on Conwy Mountain if the ghosts of the residents of Conwy Mountain hill fort look across at Penmaenmawr in smug satisfaction. Their hill fort is still there, even with some of the beautiful dry stone walls still erect. You can read the Royal Commission summary of Penmaenmawr hillfort here. (The Conwy Mountain summary is here.)

It's a fairly easy walk up the mountain from Sychnant Pass, taking you up a well maintained track which is a farmer's driveway (I feel sorry for the farmer), and then onto paths across grassland. The ground never gets very steep but when you reach the top, with views up the valley to the south, across to Llandudno and the Great Orme in the north, towards the Denbigh Moors in the east, and towards Anglesey and Puffin Island in the west, you really feel like you've achieved something. In the summer people paraglide from these hills, and you can see why.

We started the walk off from the small car park at the top of Sychnant Pass, which is a rather steep pass through the mountains from Conwy to Dwygyfylchi. It can feel rather scary sometimes to drive along, especially before they fixed the wall.

The view up the Conwy Valley from the edge of Conwy Mountain. You can see the valley sides becoming steeper and closing in up towards Dolgarrog and Trefriw. The floor of this glacial valley is broken up with smaller hills.

A wider angle view up the valley, looking much flatter than it does in real life.

Looking west towards Penmaenmawr along the coast.

Another rather misty look up the valley.

From the side of the mountain you get a wonderful view of Conwy, and you can see where it gets both its English name, Conwy Mountain, and the Welsh name Mynydd y Dref (Mountain of the Town.)

Information board on the side of the mountain.

The first glimpse of the ruined fort walls. The information board says they would have stood about three metres high with a walkway with a chest high stone wall on top, which is somewhat reminiscent of the town walls below that were built almost a thousand years later by the English invaders. The entrance at the right is still very striking. I think it's the entrance shown towards the left on the diagram above.

Large stone marking the end of the wall, I think.

I'm used to the hill fort on Pen y Gaer, my 'home' hill fort, which is fairly ruined, so it's amazing to see the wall intact here, with such dressed looking stone.

Closer up on that wall. What amazing workmanship. Just the sheer amount of stone up here must have taken hours to collect.

The other side of that entrance.

The residents had a wonderful view. I imagine field patterns and the amount of trees has changed, but the contours of the land would have been the same.

The light was beautiful and golden, and not too cold. In this weather living on top of a mountain in November seems viable.

Looking towards the western end of the fort.

Looking more north-west, the view out to sea.

From here the Great Orme, another site of great prehistoric activity, is clearly visible.

The light was beautiful on the sands below.

A rather older information board attached to one of the rocks. Unfortunately the writing is faded and in the majority unreadable.

You can get an idea here of just how much stone must have been transported up the mountain to make these walls.

The tide is out in the Conwy estuary, with the Great Orme and Llandudno beyond. One of the area's many caravan parks is below.

The walls, the view up the valley, and Conwy.

Looking down over that smaller enclosure on the outside of the walls.

A clearer view of the estuary, and the Conwy Golf Club in the foreground.

In the distance some of the quarrying works are visible, I think on Penmaenmawr Mountain, the site of that very important but destroyed hill fort.

The quarry is still working today, the mountain having been quarried since the Neolithic age. You can see some of the buildings catching the light.

The views really are far-reaching. Far in the distance is Anglesey, and just in front of it, Puffin Island, or Ynys Seiriol.

On the way off the mountain the dog was very happy to find a small pool to wallow in.

Then we caught a sighting of two Carneddau ponies, a breed of horse unique to the mountains of Snowdonia. People are currently trying to prove the genetic importance of these horses in order to have them exempted from rules requiring all horses to have passports (a measure introduced in Europe to stop them entering the human food chain). These are wild horses, but under these regulations are assumed to belong to the landowner.

A bit of tail.

I love these horses, pretty much the same as the Welsh Mountain Ponies (but genetically unique. Important to remember.)

A bit of leg...

Horse's head.

A lovely view with the sun behind.

Tail in the sunlight.

A bit more tail.

They must spend a lot of time eating...

I think this one was young, maybe a yearling. It was quite small.

Pretty little pony.

The colour the coat turned in the sunlight was amazing.

Still eating...
And a little more eating...

Yet more eating...

And so we headed home...