Category Archives: Prehistory

A walk up Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) #2 – the Iron Age hillfort

Looking up at Craig yr Aderyn from the medieval castle Castell y Bere in the Dysynni valley to the west

This walk has been divided into two, partly because I went crazy with the camera and took too many photographs, but also because I had quite a lot to say about the hillfort.  The second post, this one, is about the hillfort and what can be seen from it.  The first one was about the walk itself, how to get to it, where the two different forks take you to, and what views can be seen from parts of the route.

I am currently walking as many of the nine Iron Age hillforts in the local area as I can before winter sets in.  Or at least, I am when it’s not sloshing with rain and there’s no haze or mist to obscure views.  Fortunately there has been some glorious weather recently, after a rather soggy summer.  One of the wonderful things about hillforts is that the views are often terrific, and Craig yr Aderyn is simply the best.  It dominates the Dysynni valley from miles around, catching the light in dramatic ways, but I had never seen it up close.  Approaching it along the lovely road from Llanegryn for the first time, I was somewhat staggered when I rounded a corner and suddenly found it looming over me.  Drifting happily down the road, I had no idea that I had arrived so near to it.

Craig yr Aderyn is a highly visible local landmark in the Dysynni valley (SH643068), and is approached by small B-roads from Bryncrug or Abergynolwyn.  For full details of reaching Craig yr Aderyn and the route up, see my other post, about the walk rather than the hillfort.

A distinctly soggy part of the Dysynni floodplain.

Craig yr Aderyn, which translates as Rock of Birds, or more usually Bird Rock, is a major local landmark, abutting the of the Foel Wyllt hill ridge overlooking the Dysynni valley from the south. The course and character of the river Dysynni have changed over time.  Before the 18th century the estuary reached almost to the foot of Craig yr Aderyn, but the river silted up and is no longer navigable.  The land has been drained since the 1700s to create better quality land for farming, although standing looking down from the summit, it is quite clear that the land to the west still has some very boggy patches marked by beds of spiny rush (Juncus acutus), which is found in all freshwater flats, bogs and marshes herabouts.  It is not known what it looked like in prehistory, but the presence of a glacial valley with Cadair Idris at its back indicates that a melt-water river certainly passed Craig yr Aderyn on its way to the sea, and this will have established a valley route into which later hill drainage descended.  It would be useful to know what it was like during the Iron Age.

According to a Snowdonia Active publication (2018) the crag is made of rhyolitic tuff, rock formed from volcanic ash laid down after a major eruption through the Bala fault line c.800 million years ago.  It is separated from the hillside behind it by a saddle or col 100ft below the peak.  Its distinctive shape is immediately recognizable from miles around, almost always visible in the Dysynni area.  Its gaze always seems to follow you around.  Its summit is at 230m OD (700ft).  The hillfort is lower, at about 180 OD, 10m higher than the 170m OD Tal y Garreg, the next highest hillfort in the area.  Although the north face of the crag is very steep, the home of nesting birds and a route for rock climbers, there is a much more gradual approach to the rear.

Craig yr Aderyn is one of a small number of hillforts that were built near the Dysynni valley.  I’ve already posted about the two small hillforts at the mouth of the Dysynni, Tal y Garreg and Llechlwyd on Mynydd Garreg above Tonfanau, some 8km away to the west of Craig yr Aderyn.  Nearer to Craig yr Aderyn is Castell Mawr, c.5.5km to the west as the crow flies, about which I have also posted.  See the map at the end of the post.

At Craig yr Aderyn all of the hillfort construction work took place on a natural shelf beneath the rocky peak, which the hillfort incorporates.  Its man-made defenses consist of two phases of earthen and stone banks.  Today the fort’s ramparts are covered in grass, but most of them are still clearly visible, although it took me some time to trace them against the site plan on the ground.  Thankfully they are covered mainly with short turf rather than bracken or long grass, which makes the job much easier than at places like Castell Mawr.  The ramparts are impressive, and served to cut off the only realistic line of human access to the hillfort, as the other side is a sheer drop into the valley beyond from the summit of Craig yr Aderyn, some 270m below.  The combination of natural and stone-faced sloping man-made defenses makes this one of the most ostentations structures of this type in the area.  The site is thought to have been built in two phases.

This site plan shows how the ramparts are built into the rocks of the crag behind a natural shelf, using the existing topography as part of the design of the hillfort. The earlier phase is on the left, divided by a bank and ditch with a slightly inturned entrance. The second phase is on the right with a much deeper inturned entrance that forms a short passageway.  Source:  Bowen and Gresham 1967

The most obvious features of the first phase are the two sets of ditches and eroded banks, which once formed ramparts that were stone-faced.  This is sometimes called the upper fort.  There was an in-turned entrance at the southeast side through a gap in the rampart.  The enclosed area encloses approximately 0.8 hectares (just under 2 acres), and measures roughly 100 by 55m (c.330 x 180ft).  the shape formed against the line of the natural topography is a triangle.

Detail of the second phase entrance, with the inturned entrance forming something of a corridor into the second phase enclosure. Source: Bowen and Gresham 1967

In the second phase an additional line of banks and ditches were built on the eastern side to enclose a larger area of approximately 1.6 hectares, measuring 119 by 170m (390 x 560ft) on the east side, which was most vulnerable to attack. This included a substantial stone wall, much more impressive than the first phase.  Unfortunately, this has now collapsed, but its original line is still clearly visible.  Secondary improvements were a wall on the south side and two new banks to the east.  These were accompanied by another in-turned entrance, this a lot more prominent and well built than in phase 1.  Unlike the first entrance it could only be approached via a steep slope.  This is the entrance that the public footpath uses today, but even if you approach the hillfort at a tangent and follow a sheep track into the interior, the entrance is unmistakable from the interior.

The early excavations at Craig yr Aderyn, such as they were, produced very little in the way of dateable artefacts, and although a pottery sherd was identified at the time as Romano British, I have not seen any modern opinion on the subject of its date, and have no idea where the sherd itself is located today.  Even if this tenuous evidence was validated, it is not enough to tie in in with the other hillforts in the area, as none of those have been excavated and the architecture itself is only suggests very approximate dating.

View to the northwest from the summit

The location of the site is commanding.  It is c.9 km inland and therefore although the sea is visible, it has no view over the comings and goings of anything that was travelling along the coast.  If it was in league with any or all of the Tal y Garreg, Llechlwyd or Castell Mawr hillforts, that may not have been important.  What it did have, and still does, is  remarkable views over the Dysynni valley to the west and east from the summit, and good views towards the hill slopes to the north and south.   It is lower than many of the surrounding hills to north and south, but difficult to reach except via the saddle connecting it to the main hillside to its north.

View to the west

View to the east

Stone-fronted ramparts

The function of this hillfort remains unknown.  Even at 180m OD (590ft), Craig yr Aderyn cannot be completely ruled out as a settlement, but it it was very small, and would certainly be extremely inconvenient for permanent living, just like the other hillforts so far visited.  Although there are level surfaces that might have been suitable for settlement huts and storage, the only signs of settlement that have been found to date are an indeterminate feature found in 1874, and two possible and unconfirmed platforms in the south-east corner found in the 1921.   Whilst it might have been used as a seasonal settlement for taking sheep herds into the hills, it seems far too elaborate for this sort of role, particularly given the human resources required to build the impressive stone facing of the ramparts.

The entrance to the phase 2 extension to the hillfort

The stone-faced ramparts and entrance are themselves interesting, unique in the Dysynni area, and suggest that the site was particularly important to its builders.  In his overview of the Iron Age, Timothy Darvill in his overview of mentions that after c.400BC a number of sites were provided with sloping stone-faced ramparts, which he suggests were as much for ostentation as defense.  In a more recent discussion, focused on the Ceredigion hillforts, Toby Driver points to these as a recurring theme in that area, and he too suggests that they may have been intended to give the appearance of strength, a deterrent rather than being strictly defensive.  Although they would have required substantial investment in effort to build them, they would have been relatively easy to maintain, as their survival today demonstrates.

Upper (phase 1) and lower (phase 2) ramparts, both stone-faced

If there was insufficient stone for the facing from digging out the ditches, there was plenty of loose stone available for the ramparts.  Nearby rockfalls from the hill behind Craig yr Aderyn would have done the trick, and it is quite likely that those prominent today were the result of glacial activity.  The rocks in the immediate area were much bigger than any of those used for the stone facing, so they were probably broken up.  Interestingly, much of that rock is quartzite, some of it quite massive, but none of that was used in the rampart facing.  This suggests that the builders had a very specific vision, and it didn’t include quartzite.

The hillfort coming into view along the col (or saddle).

One slight oddity if the hillfort was to impress, is that it is not visible from a distance.  It is only when one is almost upon it that the impressive stonework comes into view.  Its appearance is defensive, because the ramparts are large and stone-faced, and the entrance well built, but the approach is not particularly challenging.  I paused twice for a breather on my way up, but I’m in my mid 50s and not at optimal fitness.  For a fit person it would present no difficulties at all, and for a hypothetical raiding party accustomed to such tasks it would have been all in a day’s work.  The approach is out of direct line of sight of the hillfort itself, and partly obscured even from the summit.  If its role was primarily defensive, lookouts would have to be stationed in the area to ensure that any threat was detected early.  its potential as a defensible retreat was tried and tested during the 10th Century AD when, according to a publication by Snowdownia Active, Tywyn was attacked and burned by Norsemen.  When they approached from the sea a warning beacon was lit on the coast, and Tywyn residents retreated to Craig yr Aderyn.  There are related theories for use.  One  are that the site might have been used as a refuge for local farming families or the most important of the local elite if there was conflict over land, or it could have been used as a secure communal store for important raw materials, food and craft products, including livestock.  There is really nothing to help narrow down a precise role.

Map showing the known hillforts in the area (my annotations in yellow). Source of map: Archwilio

From Craig yr Aderyn there is a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape.  From the hillfort it is a very short walk to the summit where there is an excellent, uninterrupted line of sight west to Mynydd Garreg and the sea in the distance, along the Dysynni valley.  Although I couldn’t make out the trig point or ramparts on Tal y Garreg hillfort through my telephoto lens, the ramparts are certainly in the line of sight.  The promontory on which Llechlwyd sits was easy to make out and I could see where Castell Mawr was located.  Bwlch too, which I haven’t yet visited, was easily visible, with its unmistakable trig point.  These lines of sight would have been no use at all for seeing what people were up to, because the other hillforts were simply too far away, but would be invaluable if the occupants were signalling to one other about any threats from outside the area, including from the sea.  There are no known hillforts nearer to Craig yr Aderyn.

The ridge at the left of the photograph, at the end of the Dysynni valley is Mynydd Garreg. Llechlwyd and Tal y Garreg hillforts are at the coastal end, and Castell Mawr at the opposite end of the ridge. Bwlch is also visible at far right. Views from Craig yr Aderyn

Bwlch hillfort from Craig yr Aderyn

Phase 2 ramparts, incorporating an enclosure that may be later in date

The second phase of the hillfort argues a renewed interest in securing the space, extending it over a larger area and adding further stone-faced ramparts.   Two distinct phases of hillfort construction have been identified at many sites elsewhere in Britain.  Although it is unknown whether the two phases at Craig yr Aderyn conform to this pattern, it seems worth giving a brief outline of the general framework.  The first British phase of hillfort building occurs, at the transition between the Late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age at c.800BC, gaining momentum after c.600BC.   These were generally single rampart-and-ditch (univallate) structures.  The addition of more defenses and additional banks and ditches then came substantially later, at a time when some other hillforts were abandoned at around 400BC.

Craig yr Aderyn from the hillfort Castell Mawr

Some hillforts in the south of England continued to be used into the Roman period.  It would not be surprising if those in  west Wales, became overtly defensive during and after the Roman invasion of Wales in AD74.  If the identification of Romano-British pottery was accurate, this might have coincided with a new anxiety about protecting the community from the threat of Roman incursion, or the threat of raiders coming to secure products to accumulate resources that would help negotiations with Roman traders or native traders securing goods to sell to the Romans.  According to Roman sources Britain was a good source of slaves, and rural areas were likely targets.

If it emerges that the local hillforts were contemporary at the time of their original construction,  I am leaning towards a completely speculative model of fortified sites being used to enable people to stay in touch and share early warnings about potential threats from further afield.  More about the role and function of local hillforts will be discussed on a future post, once I have finished visiting all nine hillforts (four down, five to go).

Sources:

Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967.  History of Merioneth, volume 1.  From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes.  The Merioneth Historical and Record Society.

Cunliffe, B. 1995.  Iron Age Britain.  Batsford

Driver, T. 2013.  Architecture, Regional Identity and Power in the Iron Age Landscapes of Mid Wales.  The Hillforts of North Ceredigion.  BAR British Series 583.

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2009.  A visitor guide to the main Iron Age hill forts of Meirionnydd.  Project No. G1770. Report No. 839

RCMHCW 1921.  Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments and Constructions in Wales and Monmouthshire.  An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire.  Volume IV: The County of Merioneth.

Sjöberg, K.S. 2014.  Hidden possibilities.  Possible uses of hillforts in southern Gwynedd, north-west Wales. Unpublished Masters thesis, Uppsala University, Department of archaeology and ancient history. http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A799381&dswid=8151

Snowdonia Active 2018. Craig yr Aderyn. Site Guides for Recreation.  Protected Landscapes of Wales.

Websites:

Archaeology Data Service
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk

Coflein
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/archive/6512930/details/504
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/archive/6512928/details/504
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/archive/6512929/details/504

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (no date).  Historic Landscape Characterisation: The Dysynni
http://www.heneb.co.uk/hlc/dysynni/dysynni2.html

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (no date).  Hillforts in Dwyfor and Merioneth http://www.heneb.co.uk/merionethforts/9craigyraderyn.html

 

A walk up to Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) #1 – the route and the scenery


I have divided my Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) walk into two posts, of which this is the first.  The first focuses exclusively on the Iron Age hillfort.  This one looks at the walk itself, how to approach it, incidental information about the environment and views from all the parts of the walk that I did.  This has to be one of the most magnificent walks in the area.  You might want to drive on to the 13th century ruins of Castell y Bere if you have energy left afterwards.

Chough. Source and more details: RSPB

As well as a destination for some of the most fabulous views in the area, it is also well known as the nesting site of cormorants (the furthest inland nesting ground for cormorants in Wales) and red-billed choughs (the latter on the endangered list).  It is also houses a two-phase Iron Age hillfort.  The hill used to be inhabited by feral goats, which were introduced in the 1960s, but slowly died out.  In the more recent past the hill has been used as a quarry for road stone, but this has now been stopped.  Today it is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area.  As the birds nest on the north face, they are undisturbed by walkers, and climbers are only allowed to scale that face outside the nesting season.

Map showing the parking area and the footpaths up Craig yr Aderyn. Source: Protected Landscapes of Wales

Craig yr Aderyn is a highly visible local landmark in the Dysynni valley (SH643068).  A narrow road skirts its base, unfortunately not identified with a number on the Ordnance Survey map. If you are familiar with Happy Valley, where you can usually squeeze two cars past for most of the way, halve that.  If you don’t like reversing, this may not be for you.  From all directions, it is a single track road with occasional passing places, and I had to reverse three times for quite a way, once around some steep corners.  From the west Craig yr Aderyn is best approached along the road from Bryncrug; from the east it can be approached from the B4405 from Abergynolwyn or via the very narrrow road through Abertrinant.

There is a small grassy parking area by the roadside at the foot of the hill, sufficient for about six or seven cars, and marked on the map above right, but not shown on the Ordnance Survey map.  There is a farm gate here that opens onto a public footpath, a rocky farm track that starts off quite steeply before levelling out for a bit, although it inevitably rises again.  After about 10 minutes,  the track carries on beyond a gate across a field, just before which the footpath veers right, a grassy break in the bracken heading up the slope.  If you find yourself pondering whether to go through another gate once out of the car park, you have gone too far.  This fork is not signposted, just has a 2ft tall post on the right of the track to mark its presence, so look out for it.

The path up from the car park

The gate in front of a track heading over the field, and the small post at the centre right of the photograph, where you turn up onto the hillside.

The public footpath that leads from the track up the hillside

The path from here is good, but climbs a lot more steeply, and doesn’t let up much.  In winter it is likely to be very wet, as even in Monday’s high heat, after two very dry days, it was distinctly soggy in places. Don’t forget to keep turning round to enjoy the fantastic views.  There’s almost no sound up there except for the tiny birds that nest in the long grass, and some crows.

 

When you have been walking for perhaps another 15 minutes there is another fork, which is not signposted in any way, but is clearly visible on the ground as wide turf tracks that make their way through low bracken.  One track leads to the hillfort on Y Pallis Bach (the low stockade) and the other leads to Col Crag, the foot of a small crag that sits on the saddle that connects Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) with the main line of the hill behind.

There’s a very well-timed bench at this fork in the path, dedicated to Nick (I don’t know who he was, but I love him), which is at the perfect point for taking a much-needed breather on a seriously hot day and admiring the views.  I flopped with enthusiasm.  Once you have enjoyed a slurp of water and enjoyed the scenerey, you simply follow the right hand fork beyond the bench to reach the hillfort, which you can see from the bench, or you can head left to go to Y Pallis Bach.  I do recommend the views from Craig yr Aderyn.

Thread your way up through the main entrance of the Iron Age hillfort, which is flanked by two great banks of local stones.  This is the second phase entrance (see my post about the hillfort if you’re interested).  Keep heading upwards for a couple minutes and you will very soon reach the summit.  Pause and enjoy.  The world is your thoroughly fantastic oyster – the whole of the western Dysynni valley rolls out before you, a truly astonishing sight.  Head a little way down from the summit, nearer to the edge, and the view is even better.   I plonked down on a convenient rock and was only sad that I hadn’t brought a picnic.  This has to be the ultimate picnic spot.  Next time.

After a very lazy sit in the sun and loving the view, I retraced my steps to the hillfort.  I had an archaeological site plan for the hillfort and try to match up the plan with what is left on the ground.  As I came down I bumped into a lovely couple who had left their car in Dolgellau and were on a six night camping hike, looping back to Dolgellau at the end of their holiday.  Now that’s serious walking!  Very impressive.  They were looking for a way down the other side of the hillfort rather than retracing their steps.  I didn’t see them again, so perhaps they found a route.

Having sorted out the hillfort features to my own satisfaction, I walked below the bottom wall towards the west to have a look at the view from there.  It’s better from the top, but still very fine.  If you’ve chosen to go to Craig yr Aderyn first and afterwards decide to go to Y Pallis Mawr, you can take a short cut by crossing towards it following sheep tracks rather than going back to the fork in the official footpath.  The marsh symbols on the above map aren’t kidding, and there are big patches of beds of spiny rush (Juncus acutus) and a large pond surrounded by small birds enjoying a bath and a drink, so stay above the dark spiky tell-tales, following the sheep tracks, and you’ll hopefully retain dry feet.  You rejoin the footpath and find yourself at the foot of a smaller, more conical peak between Craig yr Aderyn and the main hill’s peak.  The public footpath stops here, but if you feel inclined to walk up to the high crag of the hill behind, be aware that it is steep and is a scramble over rocks alongside a barbed wire fence, with a fairly convincing drop immediately to your right.  It convinced me to give it a miss.

Instead, I turned to walk down the side the hillside where there is a huge rockfall, which I was guessing was the main source of stone for the stone-lined ramparts.  These are enormous chunks of rock, with a lot of bright white quartz in amongst the dull grey.  I rounded the base of the conical peak and returned back towards the footpath, heading down the hill to the carpark.  The views were just as good on the way back.  Bliss!

Craig yr Aderyn from Castell Mawr:

 

A walk to Castell Mawr hillfort, Mynydd Garreg, near Llanegryn

This is the third Iron Age hillfort in my series about hillforts south of the Mawddach estuary and north of the Dyfi estuary.  Out of a total of nine, which includes an outlier in Machynlleth, I am visiting all those in the immediate area that are accessible via public footpaths, and Castell Mawr is one of those.

Castell Mawr (translating roughly as big castle) lies on the far northeastern end of a ridge along the top of Mynydd Garreg.  The nearest village is Llanegryn.  At the opposite end of the ridge are two hillforts about which I have posted previously, Tal y Garreg and its lower neighbour the promontory fort Llechlwyd, both of which are a mere 1.5km away from Castell Mawr.  None of the three hillforts have been excavated but structurally and topographically, each is very different in character.

Castell Mawr is quite unlike either Tal y Garreg or Llechlwyd in a number of ways, although like them, it is surrounded by pasture and has views over Craig yr Aderyd (Bird Rock) where another hillfort was located.  Whilst Tal y Garreg and Llechlwyd are on fairly high points on the ridge, (170ft OD and 70 OD respectively), and are on the edge of very steep drops on at least one side, Castell Mawr appears to be much lower than either.  The site is at 120 OD, but the surrounding pastures are also quite high, sloping gently away towards lower contours, and the hills that form the main views to the north and east are much higher, giving a sense that it is quite low down.  The ridge is only 10ft or so above the surrounding fields, with the west side ditch raising this to 18ft.   Unlike the hillforts overlooking Tonfanau, this feels very much integrated into the immediate landscape, not above and apart from it.  On the other hand, it does have remarkable views to west, north, northeast and east.

The overgrown interior of Castell Mawr hillfort, with views to the north. The modern drystone wall has been built along the western edge of the hillfort

It is a scrubby hillfort.  Some hillforts are scrubbier and more indistinct than others, but this one outdoes itself.  I was even in doubt that I was in the right place at first, in spite of the OS map clutched in my hand that argued forcefully that the site couldn’t be anywhere else and neither could I.  I eventually found sufficient features to confirm that the map was right, and I was indeed at Castell Mawr.  This is nothing like the great hillforts of the Welsh Marches or the Clwydian Range.  It is small, overgrown and incredibly difficult to make any sense of at all on the ground.  It is, however, interesting, and the views are simply stunning.  If you walk to the other end of the ridge to Tonfanau (about 1.5km away as the crow flies, but about 2km when you follow the footpath) you will be seriously happy that you went because the views are terrific.

If you are interested in visiting Castell Mawr (Grid Reference SH5804504795) or walking the ridge, here are some basic details.  The nearest village, about 2km away as the crow flies (about 3km to walk), is Llanegryn.  The hillfort is located just beyond the Castell Mawr Farm house and out-buildings, and is helpfully skirted on its southwestern side by a footpath that continues across the ridge to the two hillforts above Tonfanau, making it easy to walk the three hillforts in one day.

The location of Castell Mawr on the Ordnance Survey map, OL23. Click to enlarge to see the footpath around the hillfort clearly.

There are two ways of approaching Castell Mawr.  The first way is a less straight forward walk, parking at the Tonfanau bridge and walking up to the ridge of the hill and then along it, about 5km there and back with diversions to find gates through the drystone wall, but including a short but steep route up Mynydd Garreg.  See the Tal y Garreg post for my preferred way up on to the ridge.  Instead of turning left to Tal y Garreg, turn right along the centre of the ridge, which is a footpath leading to Castell Mawr.  The footpath is not at all clearly marked, so if you take that route, I recommend that you take a map and compass.  Alternatively it’s a matter of parking up at the Castell Mawr end and taking a short walk to the hillfort along a short stretch of footpath and then proceeding along the ridge towards Tal y Garreg.  The footpath is accessed just off a narrow B-road that runs just to the north of the hillfort, which is itself accessed from the A493.  There is no formal parking area, but you can either leave your car on the wide verge outside Castell Mawr Farm, or alternatively park in Llanegryn and walk footpaths from the A493, which is  a distance of no more than 3km.  The footpath alongside Castell Mawr is not marked with a public footpath sign.  You simply walk up into the farm, past the house on the right and follow the track to the left behind a stone barn and then to the right, continuing along the track.  On your left are a modern farm building and some fields and on the right a steep bank, which is the hillfort.  Carry on up the track.  On the right is a gate that takes you into the hillfort.  Immediately ahead of you is another gate that takes you up on to the ridge to continue the walk.

Castell Mawr hillfort is aligned northeast (top of the photograph) to southwest.

The site is a roughly oval enclosure on a rocky protuberance at the end of the Mynydd Garreg ridge, measuring roughly 262.5ft/80m north-east to south-west by 118ft/36m.  It depends for most of its defensive potential on natural slopes.  A man-made rampart is clearly visible on the west, consisting of a rock-cut ditch below a steep slope.  It is around 18ft/5.5m from bottom of the ditch to the top of the bank. Another line of defense can just about be seen at the south side of the fort, but does not extend around the east side, which is something of a puzzle, as the natural slope is steep but not terribly high –  at a guess I would say about 10ft/3m from the level of the surrounding fields.  At the north there is a slight inner bank, possibly with a shallow ditch behind it, which I found by falling into it.  This seems to be an extension of the outer earthwork visible above on the outside of the drystone wall.  Other details are remarkably difficult to make out, although by dint of fighting my way through brambles and leaning over the drystone wall I did find the outer bank on the west side that is shown on the aerial photograph.  The Coflein website suggests that there may be an east-facing entrance, and I have no idea how anyone could have made that judgement.  I can’t see it either on the ground or from the aerial photographs and Bowen and Gresham says that the position of the entrance is uncertain.  The The Royal Commission (1921) covers the site in four lines on page 128, but the brief entry does include the information that in a 1914 visit a freshwater spring was observed within the hillfort.  Today a spring is marked on the OS map immediately to the north, just to the west of the farm.  Bowen and Gresham suggest that the site is incomplete.  Unfortunately, and perhaps sensibly, they have not attempted to provide a plan of the hillfort.

The interior of the hillfort, looking to the west

The outer ditch on the west side, with the short but steep slope to the top of the bank, where a drystone wall has since been constructed

Another view of the slope and the ditch at its base

Another view of the ditch and bank.

In the hillfort looking south

The wide outer bank shown clearly on the aerial photograph, on the west

The interior of the hillfort looking east

Minor modern quarrying along the eastern edge of the hillfort, showing the top of the hillfort above, giving an indication of the short height above the levels of the fields

The west bank from outside the hillfort, from the south

An annex is mentioned by Bowen and Gresham, of which I could seen nothing due to the heavy scrub and bracken, but it apparently extends a further 78ft/24m to the north of the inner bank.  Perhaps part of it includes the outer bank shown on the west of the aerial photograph.

Castell Mawr does not seem a promising site for locating internal structures of any sort.  The interior is a mixture of considerably uneven ground, with big dips and holes disguised by bracken and very thick grass, together with big horizontal chunks of bedrock around which the site is built.  There are three massive glacial eratics within the site, which are not mentioned anywhere else, but are truly impressive.  Two of them must be about 6ft/1.8m tall.

View to the north

Some more questions arise with an assessment of the views from Castell Mawr.  My initial response (other than “wow”) was that from the point of view of keeping an eye on the movements of people across the landscape the potential for observation of any activities in the valley below, coming from east or west, was excellent.  The land drops slowly away from Castell Mawr into the valley, and there are superb, wide views across to the north and northeast, across the pass through which the A493 travels towards the hills beyond, with some views towards the west.

View from the Castell Mawr to the west

View from Castell Mawr to the east

View from Castell Mawr to the northeast

View from Castell Mawr to the east

View from the hillfort to the northeast

Looking uphill to the south

On the other hand, looking back along the ridge to the south, you find yourself looking up to higher ground.  From the hillfort it doesn’t look like much of a rise, but as you approach it, it turns out to be a fairly steep slope that has views for miles around.  Once up there, you find yourself looking down into the hillfort’s south end, and it is difficult to imagine that the single line of defensive bank and ditch, even with sturdy palisades, would have been much of a deterrent to anyone approaching from this direction.  This is the same story at the promontory hillfort Llechlwyd, at the opposite end of the ridge, where a much better positioned site sits on very high, steep slopes and is only vulnerable from the rear, where high ground looks down on it.

Looking towards the hillfort from the south.  The rise on the other side of the wall is one of the defensive banks.

A view to the north looking down into the hillfort from the higher ground to the south. As you follow the two converging lines of drystone downhill, the hillfort is on the other side of the section of drystone wall that connects them.  The line of stone in the foreground, at the bottom of the photo, seems to be artificial and extends some way to the west, but there is no indication of its date.

As to other hillforts, this is also interesting.  Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) is unambiguously visible to the northeast, overlooking the Dysynni valley, but none of the other known hillforts are visible.  Craig yr Aderyn is too far away to be able to see any significant activity unless there were signals set up between the sites.

The distinctively shaped Craig yr Aderyn from the interior of Castell Mawr

Tal y Garreg from the ridge above Castell Mawr.

If you want to see either Bwlch or Tal y Garreg, you need to walk a maximum of 10 minutes to the top of the ridge, from which Bwlch, Tal y Garreg and Craig yr Aderyn are all clearly visible.  Llechlwyd is not visible from the ridge, because like Castell Mawr, it too is at the bottom of a steep slope at the end of the ridge, but at the opposite end. Bwlch, like Craig yr Aderyn, is too far away to be able to see any significant activity at the site unless there were intentional signals set up between the sites for communication. From the point of view of line of sight to other hillforts, this part of the ridge above Castell Mawr would have been a much better, if much more exposed location (it was very windier than on the Castell Mawr outcrop).  On the other hand, the view into the pass below Castell Mawr (perhaps a former river valley) was completely invisible from the ridge, so perhaps the route along valley bottom and its approaches from east and west were the most important factors in the decision to locate the hillfort on that relatively low, rocky outcrop.

Bwlch, the brown hill in the distance, at right of the photograph, with a trig point just visible on top.

In my previous two posts about Tal y Garreg and Llechlwyd I have mentioned that no excavations have taken place on any of the Mynydd Garreg hillforts, so it is impossible to establish whether they were or were not contemporary, and therefore whether they had any form of relationship with each other.  It is immensely frustrating that speculation is all that’s available right now, but here are a couple of educated guesses.  Tal y Garreg and Llechlwyd are at the opposite end of the Mynydd Garreg ridge from Castell Mawr.  Tal y Garreg and Llechlwyd overlook the Dysynni broadwater and are so close to one another that if they were contemporary they must have been used together and if they were not contemporary it seems probable that one replaced the other.  In either case it is possible that one or both had a relationship with Castell Mawr.  They occupied the same ridge but faced in opposite directions overlooking different valleys and landscapes, which would have been invaluable for a joint defensive role as well as for communication and the moving of livestock to markets.  The ridge could have been used both for for livestock herding, as it is today, as well as driving eastwards, and the annex at Castell Mawr might have been used for rounding up sheep, cattle and/or horses.

It is also possible that they were in conflict with each other.  The most substantial defences of Castell Mawr are to the south, which could have been against an incursion from the Tal y Garreg end of the ridge, and Tal y Garreg similarly made impressive use of a rocky outcrop to raise itself above the level of the ridge in the direction of Castell Mawr.

Oh for a bit of subsurface clarification and a few radiocarbon dates!

More views from Castell Mawr:

 

Sources:

Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967.  History of Merioneth, volume 1.  From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes.  The Merioneth Historical and Record Society.

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2009.  A visitor guide to the main Iron Age hill forts of Meirionnydd.  Project No. G1770. Report No. 839

The Royal Commission 1921. An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and
Monmouthshire: VI. – County of Merioneth.  His Majesty´s Stationery Office
https://tinyurl.com/y3a8yhtc

Sjöberg, K.S. 2014.  Hidden possibilities.  Possible uses of hillforts in southern Gwynedd, north-west Wales. Unpublished Masters thesis, Uppsala University, Department of archaeology and ancient history. http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A799381&dswid=8151

Websites:

Archaeology Data Service
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk

Archwilio
https://www.archwilio.org.uk/arch/

Coflein
https://www.coflein.gov.uk/

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (no date).  Historic Landscape Characterisation: The Dysynni
http://www.heneb.co.uk/hlc/dysynni/dysynni2.html

 

A walk to Llechlwyd Iron Age hillfort, Tonfanau

The location of the two hillforts above Tonfanau, with Llechlwyd on the promontory, right.

Llechlwyd (sometimes referred to as Llechrwyd) hillfort is located on a long, narrow promontory that extends out from the hill above Tonfanau, Mynydd Garreg (Garreg hill), a short distance from Tywyn.  Llechlwyd means “grey (lwyd) stone (llech).”  At a height of 70m OD it is considerably lower than nearby Tal y Garreg hillfort (170m OD).  If you have not read my post about Tal y Garreg hillfort I suggest you read that first, because this post makes frequent reference to it.  Like Tal y Garreg, Llechlwyd has not been excavated, but it conforms to the basic design of an Iron Age hillfort, and is generally accepted to be of that period.  Llechlwyd is only a short walk from Tal y Garreg, but is a rather more difficult hillfort to reach.  The relative positions of the two hillfort are shown in the aerial photograph on the above left. The dark shadows to the left of both hillforts highlight parts of the Tonfanau stone quarry, which has cut away bits of both.

My route up and down Mynydd Garreg, above Tonfanau.  The shading in purple shows Tal y Garreg at the top and Llechlwyd below.  Source: Archwilio, with my route drawn in.

The routes up and down the hill that I took can by seen at the end of the post.  Apologies for the legend “style” instead of “stile” in the photographs above and left, but I only realized after I had posted this piece.  I parked by the Tonfanau bridge, on the Tywyn side, and walked to the bridle path, up the hill, over the stile, and back along the ridge towards the easily visible hillfort of Tal y Garreg, which makes excellent use of a natural rise in the topography.  Then, instead of going through the fence to Tal y Garreg, I turned left and walked along the fence, passing Tal y Garreg on my right.  This fence leads directly into Llechlwyd. On the aeriel photograph above it looks like a straightforward walk along the ridge, but in fact there’s a rather steep drop from the ridge to the promontory below, with a 100ft difference between the heights of the two hillorts. This can be seen clearly in the picture at the top of the post.  The route down is along very indistinct sheep tracks through coarse gorse – very rough on the lower legs if you are wearing shorts!  There’s no way through the fence, which is topped with barbed wire, and it splits the hillfort in two, so you have to retrace your footsteps towards Tal y Garreg when you want to return to the valley.  I returned via the quarry track that leads down into the old quarry yard, which itself is part of a footpath that skirts the northern base of the hill.

The date range for Llechlwyd is unknown because the site has not been excavated.  It has features typical of an Iron Age hillfort, but as the the Iron Age spans the period c.800/600BC – AD43, overlapping with the Roman occupation (AD43-c.410) that doesn’t narrow it down a great deal.  Unfortunately the structural remains alone are not sufficient to establish a narrower time frame.

Aerial view of Llechlwyd, annotated. Source of photograph: Coflein

Llechlwyd is something of a curiosity.  Although it has excellent views over the Dysynni valley and the coast to the north and south, it is in a very low position relative to the line of the hill above and behind it, with absolutely no visibility of anyone approaching along the ridge.  Although there are two banks and ditches across the promontory, it would be incredibly difficult to defend if the promontory was approached from the rear.  This would argue that either it was used in conjunction with Tal y Garreg hillfort, or that its purpose was not defensive.  Tal y Garreg today is often hidden within low cloud, not an ideal feature for a site presumably located at least partially for its views over the surrounding landscape.  In the Iron Age the temperature fluctuated, but was generally far more wet and cloudy than in the preceding Bronze Age.  This might be a good reason for establishing a secondary, lower fort to maintain clear visibility even in bad weather.  Unfortunately, it is not known whether Llechlwyd and Tal y Garreg were actually contemporary.

Another view of Llechlwyd. Source: Apple Maps

The quarry has removed part of the site, but the remaining banks and ditches are still visible and the aerial photographs above and left show where the large banks and entrance are located along the promontory. The big inner rampart, 3.6m high, consists primarily of stone.  The outer rampart is 3.2m high and the ditch 1.9m deep. The entrance, at the west end, is in-turned and sits on a steep slope of the hill. The steep sides provided enough protection on three sides, and the banks and ditches were used to secure the access to the ridge.  No excavation or geophysical survey have taken place, and the aerial photographs reveal nothing about what may lie beneath the surface of the hillfort, so we remain ignorant of any possible hut circles or storage structures.

The hillfort has lines of sight to Bwlch hillfort on Foel Llanfendigaid, c.2km to the north, and Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock), c.8km to the east.   Its main views are over the Dysynni valley immediately at its foot, as far as Craig yr Aderyn, and along the coast to the north and south.  The modern quarry makes the lines of sight between Llechlwyd and Tal y Garreg difficult to assess.  It is possible that the occupants of Llechlwyd would have been able to see a stretch of the ramparts of Tal y Garreg, and by the same token the occupants may have been able to see into Llechlwyd, but it is also possible that the topography blocked the line of sight completely.  It is a marvellous spot for a look-out over the lowlands, but, as mentioned above, to its rear it is overlooked by a steep slope that links the promontory with the rest of Mynydd Garreg.

Looking down over Llechlwyd promontory hillfort, with the Dysynni and the sea beyond

View over the Dysynni Broadwater. The valley will have had a different look to it during the Iron Age, but will have had a similar value for subsistence strategies

View across the broadwater towards Tywyn and over Cardigan Bay

View to the east

A very murky view of Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock), upon which another hillfort was built, to the east of Llechlwyd and Tal y Garret

A view to Bwlch hillfort to the north, with the Llyn Peninsula visible on the horizon.

There are no signs of Iron Age domestic structures hereabouts, but they will have been somewhere in the valley, visible from the hillfort, distributed at a similar frequency to modern farmsteads.  Livestock herding was probably the most practical subsistence activity, just as it is today.

At the other end of Mynydd Garreg, about 1.5km away, shown on the map above, is the hillfort Castell Mawr.  It is not visible from Tal y Garreg or Llechlwyd,  Castell Mawr has a secondary enclosure attached to it, which may have been used for corralling livestock.  If the area’s hillforts were related and friendly, it may be that Castell Mawr was used as a local livestock trading point, or as the gathering point for moving livestock further afield.  Without excavation such musings are pure speculation, particularly in view of the fact that it is not known if they were contemporary, but these are the sort of question that excavation might help to answer.  Excavation could provide insight into construction methods and artefacts, both of which could give an idea of the date of construction and the usage of the site, and would help to establish the chronological relationship between neighbouring hillforts and between these and the hillforts of other areas.

Sources:

Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967.  History of Merioneth, volume 1.  From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes.  The Merioneth Historical and Record Society.

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2009.  A visitor guide to the main Iron Age hill forts of Meirionnydd.  Project No. G1770. Report No. 839

Sjöberg, K.S. 2014.  Hidden possibilities.  Possible uses of hillforts in southern Gwynedd, north-west Wales. Unpublished Masters thesis, Uppsala University, Department of archaeology and ancient history. http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A799381&dswid=8151

Websites:

Archwilio
https://www.archwilio.org.uk/her/chi1/arch.html?county=Gwynedd&lang=eng

Coflein
https://www.coflein.gov.uk/

A walk to the top of Tonfanau to explore the Tal y Garreg Iron Age hillfort

Tonfanau from the southwest. Tal y Garreg is immediately above the quarry

Ordnance Survey map showing the route taken up the hill, and the location of the two hillforts, marked by red dots. These two sites are also marked on an aerial photograph below.

I have wanted to see the Tal y Garreg Iron Age hillfort at the top of Tonfanau quarry, on Mynydd Garreg (rock hill), for some time, so on Sunday (9th August) I packed my rucksack and went along the route I had scoped out on Saturday, which had been made so enjoyable by the verges filled with wild flowers.  I parked the car on the road leading up to the Tonfanau footbridge, as before and followed exactly the same route, but this time instead of stopping at the gate into the field at the end of the bridlepath, I followed the faint track of the footpath up the hill.  The route is marked in dark green on the map to the left.  There are two hillforts on Tonfanau, both of which are marked with red dots, Tal y Garreg at the summit overlooking the quarry, and Llechlwyd on a lower promontory to the east of the quarry.   On this post I will talk about Tal y Garreg, but I covered Llechlwyd on another post, and the map above and an aerial shot below show the geographical relationship between the two.  The walk up the side of the hill is very beautiful, and the views from all around the top of the hill are breathtaking.  I should, however, make a couple of health and safety notes about this walk before I recommend it as a great one to do

First, the track starts to climb fairly easily, as in the photo on the right, but as you near the top, where the bracken gives way to open ground, it becomes steep.  When you turn around to admire the view, the ground seems to drop sharply away beneath you, and falling would result in an unimpeded roll downhill.  I am very sure-footed, but instead of tacking to reduce the effort, I went straight up, leaning forward, to reduce the risk of tripping.  The views are stunning, just be careful. There are other public footpath approaches marked on the map, which might be easier.  Second, the hillfort of Tal y Gareg sits above the quarry.  Indeed, the quarry has removed a big part of the hillfort.  When you climb to the brick monument on the summit of the hillfort you are getting near to the edge of the quarry, and at the edge there is almost nothing to prevent you falling the steep drop into the quarry should you lose your footing – just fence poles with a single run of wire to mark the edge.   Perfectly okay if you’re aware of it, but do not let children loose up there.

Access over two sets of steps to the ridge at the top of the hill

The top of the hill is a ridge that extends 1.5km to the northeast, with terrific views either side.  The ridge is enclosed today by a long, winding drystone wall that extends as far as the eye can see.  A short wooden ladder on either side of the wall allows you to cross the wall easily, but take care – two of the steps on the ridge side are rotten, one completely broken.  The inside of this drystone perimeter is divided up into separate enclosures by more drystone walling, but all of them have gates or are open so you can wander freely across the top.  To the southwest is the river Dysynni, at the eastern end are views over the hills flanking the valley, including Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock).

I was up there partly for the views, but mainly because I am on a hillfort mission at the moment and wanted to check out what was left of one of two small Iron Age hillforts.  In the area between the Mawddach estury and the Dyfi estuary are fifteen known hillforts.  These fall into two distinct geographical groupings, a northern and southern group.  Eight of the fifteen are in the southern group and I am hoping to walk all of those that are accessible by public footpath.

When the first hillforts were excavated during the late 19th Century, it was assumed that all hillforts were defensive, and some southern hillforts certainly were, but it is by no means clear if all hillforts were built as a response to conflict.  Because so few hillforts have been excavated in northwest and mid Wales, it is impossible to establish exactly what they were designed to do, and most of them probably had multiple functions.  I’ll be talking more about the roles of hillforts in this area on a future post.

It is almost impossible to photograph a hillfort sensibly at ground level, although some banks and ditches can usually be captured.  Aerial photographs and excavation plans are the best ways of of visualizing individual hillforts.

 

Another view of the quarry. Source: Gwynedd Archaeological Trust

In fact, Tal y Garreg hillfort was very easy to spot from the ground, as the builders made use of a rise in the local topography and natural escarpments that face north.  Tal y Garreg means “end of the rock/cliff” and probably refers to the rocky ridge on which it is built. It lies at the southwest end of a 1.5km ridge at c.170m OD.   The natural lift in the land, shown on the above photograph at far right makes the hillfort highly visible from the ridge behind it.  The composite image above (click to enlarge if required) shows Tal y Garreg hillfort from the air with the 1967 site plan (upside down in terms of the photograph – Bowen and Gresham 1967) and a view of it from the middle of the ridge.  Another plan to the left offers a different view.  Today, massive piles of rock from the quarrying activity are left lying around, so it is not immediately easy to see the structural features and it helps to have the plan to hand to locate them.  There are two sets of banks and ditches, referred to as bivallate on the northeastern and southwestern sides.  The banks, or ramparts, were probably pallisaded to make it even more impressive from a distance, and to make it easier to protect if needed.  These ramparts contain an area around 45m long by 22m wide, small in hillfort terms.  Still, it was clear that although the space it contained wasn’t large, it had been built on an impressive scale.  The entrance was simple, inturned, and cut through the scarp to the north, facing the ridge.  It’s worth walking along the the edge of the drystone wall that runs behind the fort so that you can get a feel for the banks and ditches shown on the far left in the aerial photo, but be careful how near you get to the quarry edge.  One of the banks and ditches, cut into bedrock, is shown below, with the sea in the background.  Tal y Garreg overlooks the Dysynni valley rather than establishing a good line of sight with hills to the east or the coast to the north, although a short walk along the ridge on an averagely clear day provides those views.  The views have been radically changed by quarrying, but there were clearly good lines of sight across the sea, down into the Dysynni valley and back along the ridge.

Ditch at Tal y Garreg, excavated through the bedrock. Ramparts on the bank at this point would have given views over the Dysynni valley and Cardigan Bay.

The site has never been excavated, so any thoughts on its date or the number of phases involved in its construction are purely speculative.  On both plans a 10m diameter “tower” is marked, and this was a circular structure, in front of which is a rock-cut ditch now full of stone, which may be the remains of the tower, suggesting that it was quite a substantial feature.  One proposal is that the small primary bivallate hillfort may have been overlain by a smaller and later fort that made use of the earlier features, and that the tower may have been part of this later re-use, dating to a Roman or post-Roman/Early Medieval re-occupation.  In fact, there is so little evidence of Roman presence in the area that it seems rather unlikely that a Roman fort was located here, so it is more likely that any second phase was post-Roman.

The Tal y Garreg hillfort is so small that I am not sure that it really qualifies for the title “hillfort,” when compared with more massive and impressive examples, that contained a number of other structures within their ramparts.  It does, however, feature typical hillfort characteristics. It took advantage of strong strategic position that could be partially barricaded with banks and ditches on vulnerable sides, using steep sides to provide natural barriers to attack.  Like most hillforts, although not all, it is on high ground overlooking good farming land or pasture.  Although there are no known settlements in the area, farmsteads were almost certainly dotted around the landscape much as they are today, and the hillforts probably overlooked some of these in the valley.  The ridge itself may have been used for grazing livestock, just as it is today. In the photograph below, the sheep were on top of the ridge and the horses were just outside the drystone wall at the top of the approach to the ridge.

The hillfort had no water supply other than rainfall.  This small defended enclosure could not have sheltered large numbers of people against hostilities, and could not have been reached in a hurry from the valley below, so it was either designed to shelter a privileged few;  to store important resources in a relatively inaccessible location;  to segregate certain centralized activities in a single location;  to be a visible symbol of territorial tenure – or a mixture of various roles.

Located both on the edge of the Dysynni valley and on the coastal plain, lines of communication could have extended both on a north-south axis and along the Dysynni valley, past Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) hillfort, and into the Tal y Llyn valley heading northwest towards the hillforts near Corwen and Ruthin.  The ridge itself would have provided a high-level route alongside the Dysynni valley for c.1.5km.  At the other end of the ridge is another hillfort, Castell Mawr, which appears to have had a large annex that could have been used as a livestock corral.

Tal y Garreg is only a short walk from Llechlwyd hillfort, which also sits on the side of Tonfanau quarry, and I will be posting about in the future.  Both are poorly understood, and it is not known if they were related to each other or were chronologically separate.  They could have been contemporary but they may have been separated by anything from years or decades to one or more centuries. Until they are excavated this relationship will not be clarified.

I wanted to see if there was a clear line of sight from Tal y Garreg to the hillforts of Llechlwyd, also at the southwestern end of the ridge at the top of Tonfanau, Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) c.8km to the east and Bwlch hillfort on the next hilltop, 2km to the north, Foel Llanfendigaid.  As none of these sites have been excavated it is not known whether they were contemporary, but in the event that they were, having a clear line of sight might have had many benefits, irrespective of whether the occupants of the hillforts were friends or enemies. The nearest hillfort, Llechlwyd, is visible from Tal y Garreg, which has a view down into the much lower promontory fort.   Craig yr Aderyn is visible from Tal y Garreg, although in the distance.  If required, it would have been easy enough to set up a signal on a clear day.  Bwlch is very easily visible, and looks like the perfect location for a hillfort.  Between the two, a near-flat piece of coastal plain is divided today into fields and used for pasture.

Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) c.8km from Tal y Garreg

View from Tal y Garreg to Foel Llanfendigaid, on top of which is the hillfort Bwlch

It was useful to see what could be viewed when outside the hillfort, but still along the ridge, and it was impressive how many broad views were available from the ridge beyond the hillfort, some of which are below, all overlooking good quality pasture, currently being grazed by sheep and cattle, and far into the distance in all directions including the sea.  It was a hazy day so the views weren’t quite as spectacular as they might have been, but they showed enough to indicate that Tal y Garreg was a good site for watching movements for many miles around.

View from one side of the ridge to the other, taken from the stile.

Dysynni valley, looking east

A final though on the views available from the hillfort and visibility from below is that a couple of days later I went to walk along the Dysynni from Tonfanau bridge to Ynysymaengwyn, skirting the broadwater, and found that the entire of the top of Tonfanau was under a cloud, just where Tal y Garreg was built.  It was impossible to see its location, and it would be impossible to see anything at all from the hillfort down into the valley.  This could have been a distinct disadvantage in its location!  The second hillfort, Llechlwyd, which is on the lower promontory at 70m OD, was not shrouded in cloud, so although it had no visibility of the ridge behind it, it did have the advantage of being less prone to cloud cover.

There’s a modern structure on top of the hill at this point, which is an Ordnance Survey trig pillar.  There are also the foundations of an old shipping signal.  Ordnance Survey trig pillars (or points) are part of the history of mapping in the UK.  Trig is shorthand for triangulation, and in 1936 the first of c.6500 trig pillars were built as part of the project to retriangulate Britain.  Most of them made of concrete but the Tal y Garreg trig pillar was made  of local stone, and is shown on the right.  The OS is still responsible for maintaining the pillars, of which around 6000 remain at similar locations. The project was designed to improve the accuracy of mapping, and although it has been surpassed by modern techniques and technologies, it revolutionized map-making in Britain.  Here’s an excerpt from the Ordnance Survey page on the subject of the trig pillars:

Triangulation works by determining the location of a point by measuring angles to it from known points at either end of a fixed baseline and in this case, those known points were the 6,500 + trig pillars erected across the country. In practice, a theodolite would have been secured to the top mounting plate and made level. It would then be directly over the brass bolt underneath the pillar. Angles were then measured from the pillar to other surrounding points. For the highest accuracy primary points in the retriangulation, many rounds of angles would have been measured with the observations taking several hours.

I was expecting to have the hill to myself, but there was a group of around 10 people up there enjoying the view.  We exchanged cheerful greetings, and when they left I noticed that they took the  wide quarry track that runs on a shallow incline alongside the quarry scar.  Out of curiosity I took the same route down, and it runs into the quarry yard, which is the same as the access point to the Wales Coast Path.  A farm gate opens out onto the B-road.  The quarry track is not a public footpath, but it is not barred in any way, is safe, and as the quarry is out of use it seems okay to use it.  It’s a much easier, much shallower incline than the steep path that I took up.  Although not as attractive, it gives remarkable and safe views over the quarry itself.

The quarry track

When you reach the quarry yard, you’ll find that it is a piece of industrial archaeology in its own right, with an abandoned control panel in a small building, and various bits of abandoned heavy-duty hardware lying around, plus various shallow concrete water holders, presumably for filtration purposes.  One of them had a healthy population of bullrushes growing out of it.  Gwynedd Archaeological Trust reports that the quarry was first used for extracting granite, which is unusual in this area:

The ridge has been quarried since at least the nineteenth century. A narrow-gauge link to the Cambrian Railways was put in c. 1898, superseded by a standard-gauge siding in 1906, around the time it was taken over directly by John Corbett of Ynysymaengwyn, working as Tonfanau Granite Quarries. In 1965 this became a subsidiary of Penmaenmawr and Welsh Granite Co., and operated as Kingston Minerals from 1965 to 1981. It was thereafter worked by Mr G.C. Evans of Aberllefenni.

The report goes on to say that latterly the quarry was used to exploit a sill of coarse dolerite and gabbro that is suitable for use as road surfacing material.  Here are a few snaps of the quarry as I was on my way out, but I will be going back to explore in more depth.

Sources:

Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967.  History of Merioneth, volume 1.  From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes.  The Merioneth Historical and Record Society.

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2009.  A visitor guide to the main Iron Age hill forts of Meirionnydd.  Project No. G1770. Report No. 839

Sjöberg, K.S. 2014.  Hidden possibilities.  Possible uses of hillforts in southern Gwynedd, north-west Wales. Unpublished Masters thesis, Uppsala University, Department of archaeology and ancient history. http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A799381&dswid=8151

Websites:

Coflein
https://www.coflein.gov.uk/

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (no date).  Historic Landscape Characterisation: The Dysynni
http://www.heneb.co.uk/hlc/dysynni/dysynni2.html

A short wildflower walk from the Dysynni (Tonfanau) bridge

Bottom left of this map is the Dysynni rail bridge with the more recent Tonfanau foot bridge immediately alongside.  The bridge was built in 2013, just north of Tywyn (see more about the bridge on an earlier post here).  On Saturday, having escaped the truly appalling traffic carnage and the suicidal pedestrians in Aberdovey, I parked up just short of the bridge, hauled on some walking shoes and crossed over the bridge, pausing to admire the Dysynni river. The railway bridge that runs alongside, a nice bit of local heritage, is currently encased in white plastic.  Heaven knows what is being done, but good to see that it is being cared for.  The footpath beneath the railway bridge, by the way, is closed as a result.  I had only very limited time, but yesterday I simply wanted to scope out the best way of getting to the top of the Tonfanau hill that dominates the Dysynni at this point, so was looking for the footpaths that would take me up on another day.

The walk along the Wales Coast Path extends towards Tonfanau station from the bridge, but turns back along a hairpin turn along the road until just past the main quarry gates, when it turns left through a farm gate into the quarry yard to proceed along the western edge of the hill, as shown on the above map.  I ignored that turning and walked past the quarry until I reached a bridlepath sign on the left at Lechlwyd, also shown on the above map, which takes a route along the eastern edge of the hill.  Along the bridlepath, the hill soars steeply above the track.  It is beautiful, vibrantly green, and in places covered in dense swathes of glorious gorse and heather.  At the point where a gate opened into a big field I turned back, but the footpath eventually leads up to the top of the hill and the Iron Age hillforts.  I did that walk on Sunday, and I’ll post about that walk in a couple of days.

Although part of my walk was B-road, only two cars passed me, and there were plenty of verges onto which to retreat to let the occasional vehicle go past.

The walk offers some fine views over the Dysynni and the hills beyond, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of it was the amazing density of wild flowers bursting up and out of the verges and reaching through the hedges.  If you are looking for a short and very easy walk that requires no preparation or planning, and is easy on the legs, this one, at this time of the year, is a very good option.

 

Tonfanau footbridge

Tonfanau, with the scarring from the quarry

I’m not sure what this flock of birds consists of.  My initial thought was that they are starlings, but although the shape and beak are right, they seem far too light, unless it’s a trick of the sun.

Field or common bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis).  Visually similar to sea bindweed (Calystegia soldanella), which I have posted about from dune walks, but common bindweed has smaller flowers and different leaves, much longer and thinner.  One of my books (Spencer-Jones and Cuttle 2005) says that once they begin to coil anti-clockwise around a support they grow so fast that a stem can complete one coil in less than two hours.  As a result they spread fiendishly fast, colonizing whole hedges and shrubs.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is liberally distribute throughout all the verges near the Dysynni.
It is very common on wastelands, and reaches 150cm, forming clumps.  At the moment the bright white flowers on purple-red stems are particularly attractive.

Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus)

Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris) apparently smells similar to cloves at night.  The leaves are edible when boiled and smell like fresh peas.

Hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) grows on the wasteland and the edge of cultivated land and footpaths, with a preference for semi shade.  The toothed leaves look rather like nettles.  They grow up to 1m tall.   It was renowned from the 16th Century for its healing properties, and it has proved to be mildly antiseptic.  White markings on the lower lip of the two-lip flower guides bees to nectar.

A pink version of yarrow, which is usually white (Achillea millefolium).  The name, meaning thousand leaf, refers to the feathery leaves.  They thrive in coastal areas.  I’ve posted about it before, but I love the story behind the name.  spreads by underground stems, and is patch-forming. It is disease resistant, which can benefit neighbouring plants, and its small leaves prevent excessive moisture loss. It was named for Achilles, who used it to heal the wounds of his soldiers, and it retains its reputation as a good cure for cuts and bruises. It has a long history as a remedy for colds and fevers (as a tea) and for toothache (when the leaves are chewed). Its leaves and flowers are used in salads in small quantities, it can be boiled as a vegetable and served with butter, and it can be thrown into soups and stews. It has a slightly bitter taste. Flowers July to October.

Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca). A climber that uses long tendrils to scramble through hedges and shrubs.

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) – there were loads of these, which I had never seen before, and they were very pretty.  When they have finished flowering a fruit forms, the calyx of which has hooked spines that attach themselves easily to animal fur for dispersal.  A standard tool in the physician’s herbal remedy kit in the past, and still used as a component in solutions for catarrh and digestive problems.

The blackberries (Rubus fruticocus) are ripening!  Not long now :-).  Apparently there are nearly 2000 micro-species, so telling one from another is more of a challenge than I feel the need to get to grips with.

Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra), looking very like a thistle, but with long pointed leaves and no spines.  The brightly coloured bee is a male red-tailed bumble bee (Bombus lapidarius)

Betony (Stachys officinalis)

Hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum).  It produces white hairs to disperse its seeds, giving it a rather fluffy appearance.  The name Eupatorium comes from Eupator Mithradates the Great of Pontus (which under Mithradates incorporated Turkey and various territories around the Black Sea).  Mithradates allegedly used it for making antidotes to poisons.

 

The perennial Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion augustfolium) is everywhere hereabouts at this time of year.  Because it has rhizomes, it forms in large patches that are actually a single plant.  Each spear has a marvellous grouping of bright pink flowers with long white stamen, as below.  When the seedpods open, seeds spreads by means of attached plumes, forming pretty fibrous masses, as shown below.  The plant used to be known as fireweed due to its prevalence on WW2 bomb sites, and it is frequently found in wasteland and poor soils.

Rosebay willowherb seed pods and plumes

Perforate St John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea)

Common/yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) looks so exotic, like an orchid, but is relatively commonplace.  It is a perennial that flowers between July and October.  Narrow leaves grow spirally up the stems.  The flower is two-lipped and only large long-tongued bees can push the two closed lips apart to reach the nectar.  Colloquial names include squeeze-jaw and bunny-mouth.  It likes open fields and sandy soils.

Beautifully scented honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) was in all the hedges

Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica).

Update on a very wet Monday (10th August):  I couldn’t find out what these are, but in reply to my request for help, Jean suggests that they may be bullace, wild plums.  I’ll go back and pick one when it stops raining.

Sheep’s-bit (Jasione montana)
Sometimes called Sheep’s-bit scabious, this is actually a perennial member of the campanula family, even though it has no obvious resemblance to the usual bell-flowered character of campanulaceae and at first glace looks much more like a true scabious.  Unlike scabious, it has small, alternate hairy leaves. and tiny narrow petals.  According to the Wildlife Trusts website, pollinating insects, which see a different light spectrum to humans, find it highly visible under ultraviolet (UV) light, and use the patterns and colours on the petals to guide them to the nectar and pollen.  It usually starts flowering in July, but thanks to the remarkably warm spring, a lot of species are flowering early.  It likes a wide variety of environments, including dry grassland, and is often found in coastal areas.  It is an excellent pollinator.

Heather and broom on the southern slopes of Tonfanau.

View from the bridlepath across the Dysynni to the hills beyond

Holly blue (Celastrina argiolus)

Lord and Ladies (Arum maculatum) fruit, what we used to call cuckoopint when I was a child.

Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

Common fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica).  Pulix in Latin means flea, and the plant was used was used as a flea deterrent.

Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) on Hemp agrimony.

Bittersweet, or woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara).  All parts of the plant are poisonous but in humans usually cause only upset stomachs. The latin species name “dulcamara” means sweet-bitter, which describes the bitter taste, followed by a sweet after-taste. In Germany physicians used it as a cure for rheumatism and it was hung around the necks of cattle to ward off evil. It flowers from June to September and is happy in hedgerows and woods. After flowering it produces egg-shaped berries that start off green, as above, and slowly become a bright, shiny red.

Hawthorn berries (Crataegus monogyna)

Red campion (Silene dioica). Campions are one of the flowers I remember very fondly from childhood.

A verge full of splendid colour.

 

An imposing farmhouse and fields int he foreground, with
Craig yr Aderyn (bird rock) and soaring hills beyond

The drive back into Aberdovey from Tywyn defies description.  The road was lined with parked cars, often in places where I’ve never seen cars parked before (and in several places where cars simply shouldn’t be parked).   It seems as though a lot of people who would normally be holidaying on the Mediterranean have decided to come to Aberdovey instead.  I am sincerely happy for the Aberdovey businesses, but social distancing is non-existant, masks are few and far between, and the whole thing looks like a seething petrie dish for the transmission of nasties.  After one experimental foray, I’m staying well out of it.

 

Cefn Caer, Roman auxiliary fort, Pennal

Simplified reconstruction of Pennal Fort by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust: Source: Gwynedd Archaeological Trust

The nearest Roman site to Aberdovey is the fort at Pennal, called Cefn-Caer (which translates roughly as ridge/hillside of the fort), 10.5km (6.7miles) away from Aberdovey.  Although there is a rock-cut track that stretches from Penhelig to Picnic Island along the estuary that is known locally as the Roman Road, this actually dates to 1827.  Cefn Caer at Pennal, however, is the real thing:  a Roman fort 600 yards from Pennal down a small B-road.  It formed part of a network of forts and roads that were key to the Roman plans to subjugate Wales.  When I first started looking into Cefn Caer for this post, it was simply because the site is part of this area’s history and I wanted to include it as a small representatives of Roman activity in Wales.  The word “small” is worth noting here, because I was expecting Cefn Caer to be no more than a very ephemeral way station for travellers (mansio) or a tiny watch-post.  In fact, it is a fairly substantial affair, as demonstrated by the above simplified reconstruction by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT).  The GAT work at the site reveals an auxiliary fort with all the features associated with a permanent installation, which had an important strategic role.

Pre-Roman Wales. Source: Wikipedia

The Roman Empire first made its presence felt on British shores first under no less a personage than the Emperor Julius Caesar, albeit only briefly in 55BC and 54BC.  Under the Emperor Claudius matters were taken far more seriously in AD 43 and there was to be no retreat, and after the invasion most of Britain was incorporated in the Roman Empire for for the best part of 400 years. The period of the Roman occupation of Britain is known as the Romano-British period (AD 43 to 410).

Iron Age Britain immediately prior to the invasion was divided into six main tribal areas, recorded in Roman documents, which were organized in social hierarchies that were based on lineage, status and military aptitude “cemented by the distribution of favours and hospitality; consequently equipment for eating looms large in the archaeological record” (Davies and Lynch 2000).  Parade gear, with a particular focus on horses and chariots, is also dominant in the archaeological record.  Subsistence practices depended very much upon geography, but combined herding of domesticated animals (cattle, sheep, goat and pigs) with the cultivation, where possible, of emmer wheat and barley.  Hillforts are generally thought of as synonymous with the Iron Age, as places where political power was centred, but in mid-west Wales, where there are very few hillforts, suggesting that political power was more fragmented, and consisted of scattered farmsteads.  Although the Tal y Llyn hoard (covered on an earlier post) found at Cader Idris is very rich, it is entirely possible that it was hidden by someone travelling through the area, rather than a local resident.  Although in some areas life went on without disruption for some time, in the areas where the invaders first settled, they introduced substantial change very quickly.

The Emperor Claudius, Naples Archaeological Museum.

When Aulus Plautius, the chosen commander of the Emperor Claudius, led an invasion force to Britain and  landed in the southeast, he found the prosperous and sophisticated Catuvellauni tribe dominant, their territory extending from Essex to Surrey under the leadership of Caratacus and his brother Togodummus.  Caratacus and Togodummus were defeated when confronted with the 40,000 men in four legions and supporting auxiliary forces.  Caratacus abandoned his family and fled to the Silures tribe in southeast Wales to rethink his strategy.  Caratacus realized that the partially low-lying territory of the Silures was vulnerable and created an alliance with the Ordovices, which had highland areas in its territory, to organize resistanc,.  The Ordovices were the main tribe occupying most of Gwynedd and Ceredigion, and “by creating a multi-tribe resistance he [Caratacus] offered the most effective bulwark against the Roman invasion to date” (de la Bédoyère 2003).

Cefn Caer, showing farm buildings with traces of the Roman fort in the field to its right. Source: RCAHMW (on the Coflein website) Catalogue Number C872327, File Reference : AP_2009_1671. By Toby Driver

It was not until AD 47 that the Romans felt the need to turn their attention to the tribal areas of what is now known as Wales.  Wales had many benefits from a Roman point of view, including rich mineral resources, fertile valleys and a long coastline.  It would also have been a good source of manpower via voluntary enlistment or conscription.  Perhaps most important, strategically, without peace in rebellious Wales, all Roman-controlled land to its east was potentially under threat.  The first period of military hostilities between Rome and Wales lasted between AD 47 and AD 60, with multiple campaigns against the Marches and Welsh communities, starting in the southeast.  A significant event was the Battle of Caer Caradoc in AD 50, where Caratacus led armies composed of the Ordovices and Silures against the Roman military.  In spite of the strategic advantage of Caratacus and his armies, holding the high ground, the Roman forces under the governor Publius Ostorius Scapula had weaponry, body armour and military experience that outclassed Silurian and Ordovician resources.  Caratacus was defeated and ultimately taken into custody and carried to Rome where the Roman senate were sufficiently impressed by his speech that he earned a pardon from Claudius and lived out his life in Rome.  In his book “Defying Rome,” de la Bédoyère comments that Caratacus “failed to appreciate that he was on the whole a dinosaur.  While he maintained his resistance he found the only place he could do so was amongst people who had no idea what Rome amounted to.”   The Romans did not have it all their own way, but although the Silures went on to defeat a Roman legion in AD 52, it was only a matter of time before Wales was brought under Roman control.  There was a brief respite when the Boudiccan rebellion in East Anglia in AD 60 required the redeployment of troops.  Full-scale invasion was temporarily abandoned and a strategy of containment was practised in Wales, with all of the only permanently occupied military bases lying along the border.

Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum). Source: Wikpedia. Photograph by Alastair Rae

In AD 73 under the Emperor Vespasian, Sextus Julius Frontinus was appointed Governor of Britain (AD 73-77) , and it is during his tenure that Wales was fully conquered.  Three legionary fortresses were established as campaign bases, at Caerleon (Isca Silurum), Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and Chester (Deva Victrix), and temporary camps were set up within Wales itself, setting the scene for “a network of garrison posts, incorporating fortlets and watchtowers, eventually linked by an all-weather road system” (Arnold and Davies) which were used to maintain control over the rural and often highland zones.

Information about Iron Age and Romano-British exploitation of the western areas of west of mid Wales is particularly sparse, but it would be surprising if such rich natural resources as the Dyfi and particularly Dysynni valleys were not employed for cattle herding and some cultivation, with the surrounding highlands excellent for sheep herding.  It is by no means clear if the Ordovices occupied the whole area, as the boundaries of tribal areas are not known, and it is thought that other smaller and less dominant communities also occupied parts of Wales, but it seems clear that whatever happened to the Ordovices would have had an impact on other small communities in the area.  After their defeat under the leadership of Caratacus in AD 50, the Ordovician tribe again rebelled in AD 77-78 and was put down uncompromisingly by the British governor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola.  Agricola went on to establish forts at Caernarfon, Caersws, Pen Llystyn (Bryncir),  Tomen y Mur (Trawsfynydd), Caer Gai (Penllyn) and Cefn Caer (Pennal), most of them in river valleys or estuaries.  Other sites in the mid Wales area established in this period were the fortlets at Erglodd in Ceredigion and Brithdir in Merionnydd.

Military installations c.AD 70-80. Source: Arnold and Davies 2000, p.16

The Roman architectural infrastructure in Wales took the same form as it did elsewhere, a hierarchy of military installations.  The most important in strategic, organizational and to an extent administrative terms were the legionary fortresses at Chester (Deva), Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and Caerleon (Isca Silurum).  These were, however, in a minority, and the main control over Wales was exercised by a large number of auxiliary forts dotted at strategic positions throughout Wales, often on rivers and estuaries, supplemented at intervals by small fortlets and watch towers.  Legionary and auxiliary forts each refer to the type of garrison stationed there.  Legions were the elite army of the Roman Empire, composed of c.5000 men, divided into ten cohorts.  They served for twenty-five years and were rewarded on retirement with a choice of land or a payment.  Auxiliaries were composed of non-Roman citizens, men who entered the army from throughout the Roman empire sometimes sometimes as volunteers but  sometimes extracted from their homes by force.  They were granted Roman citizenship once they retired.  They were far more numerous than the legionary forces and were essential to the Roman occupation of Britain.  Mid Wales in the Romano-British period  remains poorly understood, which means that wherever a Roman site or a contemporary Iron Age is identified in the area, it is potentially of considerable importance for understanding what was happening in mid Wales at this time.  The Cefn Caer fort was an auxiliary fort, the westernmost of Roman structures in Meirionnydd, established in the AD 70s.

Cefn Caer geophysical survey results. Source: Hopewell 2001

There are few visible features of Cefn Caer on the ground.  The ramparts to the southwest and northwest can be made out, but elsewhere they are low banks that cannot always be seen.  Before it was torn down and rebuilt in 1769  the church in the village of Pennal was reported to include a large number of Roman brick in its walls, and remaining obstructions to cultivation were probably moved in the distant past, and the land continues to be used by the local farm for cultivation.   The farm buildings, including a sub-Medieval farmhouse (which can be visited), sit within the west corner of the fort and the northern corner of the fort is crossed by a small B-road  Although the 1967 History of Merioneth provided dimensions derived from previous surveys of the fort, detailed knowledge of the scale and structure of the fort comes from more recent analysis of aerial photographs, the use of geophysical survey and field excavations, the latter only sampling certain parts of the site. The history of the archaeological work can be summarized as follows.  The site was first noted by Robert Vaughan in his Survey of Merioneth in the mid 17th Century, and in a late 17th Century letter by the rector of Dolgellau, Maurice Jones.  Amongst the 17th Century finds were a silver coin inscribed with the name of the Emperor Domition.  Subsequent visits to the site reported ditches, coins, bricks, a hard paved road, pottery and a tile relating to II Augustian Legion.   The main sources of information are the initial detailed report by Professor R. C. Bosanquet in 1921, which was further studied and commented upon in 1957 by H.C. Irvine in BBCS Volume XVII part 2, and these were the best sources of information on the subject prior to the work by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT).  GAT used conventional survey, geophysical survey,  and excavated some sample trenches to investigate further (Hopewell 2001, 2003).

Cefn Caer was a small auxiliary fort (castellum) with traces of a ditch still visible at the northwest, outside the rectangular bank that encloses the fort.  It was built in AD 70s. It is more than 1.68ha (5 acres) in area, measuring 140m x 120m (c.550ft x 425ft) northeast to southwest with rounded corners.  An earlier site of c.2.4ha appears to have predated it, which may have been the temporary fort established before the construction of the permanent site.  The fort was located at the west end of a ridge or spur that rises 15m (50ft) above the floodplain north of the river Dyfi, c.10km (c. 6 miles) from the mouth of the estuary.  This offered it the dual benefits of having something of a view over the surrounding area, and in particular the river crossing.  It was only 100m (328ft) northeast of the marshy Dyfi floodplain and 1.6km (half a mile) from the river itself, where “tongues of the land extend opposite each other to both banks of the river” (History of Merioneth) providing an ideal place for fording the river, and where coastal vessels could unload.   Roman forts were built to a fairly standardized template, meaning that they could be built rapidly without resorting to labour beyond the personnel they had to hand, and Cefn Caer does not deviate from this basic form.  For comprehensive details see Hopewell 2003 (available to download – link also at the end of this post) but here are some of the key features that Hopewell describes, with numbers in the text referring to the site plan, copied here.

Resuilts of the GAT geophsyical survey at Cefn Caer. Source: Hopewell 2003, Gwynedd Archaeological Trust

Cefn Caer was arranged around two main axes that crossed the fort at right-angles to each other, one on a northeast to southwest axis, the other crossing it on a northwest to southeast axis, and the whole fort was surrounded by defensive ditches. At its centre, on a natural rise, were the fort’s stone-founded headquarters, the principia (principal buildings – no.5 on the above plan) measuring 25m x 28m.  Several other buildings also appear to have had stone foundations.  The entrance to the principia is on the south-west side, and “leads into a courtyard with a portico on four sides bounded by a cross hall at the rear. At the rear of the building stand a set of five rooms comprising a central shrine room (sacellum) with offices to either side” (Hopewell 2003).  There are two buildings either side of the via principia. GAT interprets the building to the north-west (10) as the praetorium (commander’s house).  In the retentura (rear part of the fort) one block of centuriae (military barracks) (12 on the above plan) can clearly be seen.  The officer’s quarters stand towards the corner of the fort. Part of the space in the praetentura (the front part of the fort) appears to be taken up by two ranges of centuriae.  Part of the big building complex (14) may be a stable block with the stalls.  Within the fort are a number of roads, which are standard for an auxiliary fort, as follows:

  • The via principalis (6 on the above plan), running from north-west to the south-east across the centre of the fort.
  • A short length of the via praetoria (7) runs at right angles to the via principalis under the farmyard
  • The via decumana (8) runs from the rear of the principia to the north-eastern gate
  • The via sagularis (9) runs around the inside of the ramparts

Beyond the main limits of the fort a vicus developed to the northeast and northwest.  A vicus is a small settlement associated with an auxiliary fort, a community of traders and their families, who supplied good to the garrisons within, but its inhabitants were rarely local, and were just as much outsiders as those within the fort.  Marriage was forbidden to Roman soldiers, but there is little doubt that less formal arrangements existed, and that families of soldiers also resided within the vicus.   The presence of a vicus next to the fort is indicative of its permanence and relative longevity.  Below the southwestern annex there was a small circular building that was probably a small temple, shrine or tomb.  A large rectangular building (33 on the above plan) measuring 34 x 22m may be a mansio (travellers’ way station).  A mid 19th Century visit by the Cambrian Archaeological Association mentions the remains of a hypocaust (sub-floor heating, sometimes associated with bath complexes), and this appears to have been located in an annex to the northwest of the fort (22) where there is plenty of Roman tile on the surface.

Cefn Caer site plan. Source: History of Merioneth, page 239, figure 102.

The fort has four entrances, one in the centre of each side, and there have been some efforts to determine where the roads that terminated here linked to locally.  A small B-road cuts across the north corner of the site, shown in the plan from History of Merioneth to the left, and the History of Merioneth suggests that the sudden kink in the road indicates that for a short span it follows the Roman road that emerged from the site.  Evidence of the same Roman road a little further on appears to run along a nearby ridge.  There was also an earlier indication that portions of a road led from the southwest gate led down to the river.  The History of Merioneth suggests that this may have led to a quay at Llyn y Bwtri.  The southeast gate would have faced the river crossing. Cefn Caer appears to be linked to a number of national routes as follows.

  • Via the fortlet at Brithdir towards Tomen y mur (to the northeast of Llyn Trawsfynydd. Tomen y Mur is considered to have been the most important Gwynedd fort due to its strategic position, its size and its complex layout, with an amphitheatre, bath house, vicus, mansio and related structures, including a possible aqueduct.  Although the roads connecting it are not completely mapped, it is clear that it was an important link between mid (and south) Wales with the important sites of Caernarfon and Canovium (Caerbun) to the north, which were in turn connected to the regional capital at Chester.
  • Via the fortlet at Brithdir northeast towards the important fort of Chester), via smaller forts at Caer Gai and Llanfor.
  • Cefn Caer probably linked to another route, this time west to another ciwitas captial at Wroxeter via the fortlet at Pen y Crogbren and the forts at Caersws and Forden Gaer.
  • It was also clearly connected with sites to the south of the river Dyfi, in the first instance the fortlet at Erglodd and, in turn, the forts at Pen Llwyn and Cae Gaer.  These were on routes to the important southern Welsh fort Caerleon.

These are all shown on the map of Roman Wales above and although the road network cannot currently be completed, the map indicates how Pennal was linked to other sites in the area, providing an important intersection at the river Dyfi between north and south parts of west Wales.

Brithdir fortlet from the air. Source: RCAHMW colour oblique photograph of Brithdir Roman fortlet. Taken by Toby Driver on 11/12/2007. Published on the Coflein website.

Another Meirionnydd fort at Brithdir, 3 miles east of Dolgellau, was found in the early 1960s and is clearly connected by a contemporary road to Cefn Caer at Pennal.  It measured c.184x184ft (54m sq), so was much smaller than the Cefn Caer fort.  It has not been excavated and there are no extant remains, but it shows up very clearly in aerial photographs like the one at left, and in the early 1990s geophysical survey was carried out at the fortlet.  When a new housing estate was under construction nearby in the 1970s the opportunity was taken to excavate, and the results of these combined sources show a complex history at and around the site.  At least two and possibly three, ditches surrounded the fort, and there are indications that a bathhouse and workshops were present.  Brithdir was considered to have been built to guard an important intersection of a number of routes.

The fortlet at Erglodd in Ceredigion.  Source: Gwynedd Archaeological Trust

Looking to the south of Cefn Caer, the nearest site on the other side of the river was the fortlet at Erglodd, to which it was presumably connected by a road to the Dyfi ford.  You can read more about the results of the geophysical survey in the Gwynedd Archaeological Report on the subject (Hopewell 2007).

Unlike the other parts of England and Wales, there is no evidence for towns developing or villas being built in Mid Wales.  Arnold and Davies say that this “may be a silent commentary not just upon native resistance but upon the inability of the agrarian base to produce the necessary surplus.  Together with geographical constraints, this inhibited political co-operation and fostered continuation of highly segmented societies.”

In the period AD 78-83, again in AD 98-119 and then again in AD 125-6 troops were required in the north of Britain (eventually resulting in Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall) and overseas, when some troops were again withdrawn from Wales.  Some forts were abandoned whilst others, like Tomen-y-Mur at Trawsfynydd, were resized and operated with less manpower.  By AD 140 very few auxiliary forts were occupied in Wales and it is probable that Cefn Caer was abandoned either at this stage, or during the 3rd Century, when most of Wales was abandoned.

A lot of unanswered questions may be tackled in the future.  Gwynedd Archaeological Trust’s Roman Fort Environs Project funded by Cadw is researching the environs of a number of forts using fluxgate gradiometer survey, which should help to develop an understanding not only of the forts but of their ancillary structures, roads and supporting settlements.  Gwynedd Archaeological Trust has so far carried out surveys at Canovium (Caerhun), Caer Gai (Llanuwchllyn), Caer Llugwy (Capel Curig), Cefn Caer (Pennal) and Pen Llystyn (Bryncir).  These findings will be published in the future.  At the same time, a number of GAT and independent projects are looking for the remains of Roman roads in areas where the linkages are known only from small sections, in order to fill the gaps in knowledge about the roads between forts and the routes they followed.  Research by Hugh Toller, for example, is thought to have uncovered a number of previously unknown sections of the RRX96 road between Pennal and Brithdir.

Main sources:
Arnold, C.J. and Davies, J.L. 2002.  Roman and Early Medieval Wales.  Sutton Publishing
de la Bedoyere, G. 2003.  Defying Rome. The Rebels of Roman Britain. Tempus
Bosanquet, R.C. 1921. Cefn Caer – Roman fort in An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire VI. County of Merioneth RCAHM
Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967.  History of Merioneth.  Volume 1: From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes.  The Merioneth Historical and Record Society
Davies, J. 2007 (third edition). A History of Wales.  Penguin
Davies, J. and Lynch, F. 2000. The Late Bronze and Iron Age.  In (eds.) Lynch, F., Aldhouse-Green, S. and Davies, J.L.  Prehistoric Wales.  Sutton Publishing
Gwyn, D and Davidson, A. 2007. Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi.  A Threat Related Assessment. GAT Project No. 1824. Report No. 671.1. April,2007. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust
Hopewell, D. 2001. Roman Fort Environs G1632, Report 416. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2001.  http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_416_compressed.pdf
Hopewell, D. 2003.  Roman Fort Environs 2002/2003, G1632, Report number 479. Gwynedd Archaeological Reports.  http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_479_compressed.pdf 
Hopewll, D. 2007.  Roman Fort Environs. Geophysical Survey at Trawscoed Roman Fort and Erglodd Fortlet. G1827(2). Report number: 667.  Gwynedd Archaeological Trust.  http://www.dyfedarchaeology.org.uk/projects/07romanergloddgeophys.pdf
Irvine, H.C. 195
7. Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies Volume XVII part 2, (p.124-131)

Coflein entry on Cefn Caer:
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/300159/details/cefn-caer-roman-fortpennal-roman-fort
Coflein entry on Brithdir fortlet:
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/95480/details/brithdir-roman-site

The Tal-y-Llyn Iron Age hoard

One of the two trapezoidal plaques showing opposing heads within a decorative scheme. Source: National Museum of Wales

One of the most extraordinary finds of late Iron Age art, in the La Tène (or Celtic) style, is the Tal-y-Llyn hoard, found near the Tal-y-Llyn lake, a 15 minute drive from Tywyn.  The term La Tène derives from European Iron Age research and takes its name from the type site (the site at which it was first identified), named La Tène in Switzerland, on the side of lake Neufchatel.  The style extends across most of eastern Europe as far as Ireland in the west.  In Britain the style is often described as “insular,” reflecting that fact that although it incorporates the distinctive elements of La Tène art, it developed a style of its own.  Many impressive examples have been found throughout Britain and Ireland. La Tène is the second major period of the Iron Age, following the Hallstatt period, and in Britain is defined not merely by its metal work and the accompanying style but by a geographically variable and complex social and economic profile.

The metalwork in the Tal-y-Llyn features both the La Tène curvilinear geometric designs that are popularly given the broad “Celtic” label, and more unusual human faces, all very beautiful.  Savory discusses how some of the Tal-y-Llyn finds are an early form of La Tène art in Britain, before the so-called “insular” style unique to Britain evolved, still reminiscent of the middle period of La Tène art in Europe, dating to around the 4th or 3rd Century BC.  The Tal-y-Llyn hoard has been mentioned in most summaries of the British La Tène ever since.  Iron Age Britain at this time seems to have been a harsh place, described by Darvill as “a period of aggression, unrest, uncertainty and tension.”  The climate was deteriorating and the population competing for resources, a particularly difficult combination.  One of the most obvious features of the period in Britain is the hillfort, which were usually hilltop settlements enclosed by series of banks and ditches, bounded by palisades.  There were, however, many other types of settlement, also usually defended.  Meirionnydd, however, is notably lacking in hillforts and it is far from clear what sort of occupation was here, if any, during the Iron Age.  Although the absence of hillforts seems to be part of a regional pattern that includes southwest England and southwest Wales I am not sure whether the absence of evidence for other Iron Age settlements is due to lack of settlement in the area during the Iron Age, which seems improbable, or lack of archaeological research in the area, and this needs to be determined.  The presence of the Tal-y-Llyn hoard is not itself evidence of settlement in the Tal y Llyn area, and seems more consistent with a separate but contemporary hillfort tradition associated with north Wales, the borders and the English south coast.

The hoard was found next to a steep path  at SH72702288, part of a walk to the peak of Cadair Idris that starts at the Minffordd car park on the B4405 road to Tal-y-llyn, just off the  A487 from Dolgellau to Machynlleth.  The path leads from the valley up the west side of Nant Cadair.  It was found by a couple having a picnic.  They noticed pieces of sheet bronze half buried beneath a large boulder. The owners of the land donated the hoard to the National Museum of Wales on permanent loan.   The find was written up and published by Dr Hubert Savory (Keeper of Archaeology in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff) in the archaeological journal Antiquity in 1964, a year after its discovery, and discussed further briefly in the same journal in two short notes in 1966.

The two trapezoid plaques. Source: Savory 1964, plate II

The hoard consisted of thin decorative sheeting made of copper alloys, all bound closely together.  When it was inspected, it was found to look less like a ceremonial deposit than a stash deposited for later collection.  In Savory’s words “the metalwork had evidently once decorated at least two different shields and possibly various other objects as well, it must have been dismantled and packed together as scrap-metal before being deposited under the boulder.”  The shield pieces were decorated with vertical ribs and curvilinear plaques that flanked a central shield boss (a knob set in a circular, often decorated plate) all of which had been riveted on to a wooden or metal shield.   A more fragmentary shield boss was also found in the hoard, as were two trapezoid plaques that don’t appear to connect directly to the other finds, four composite discs that had been riveted to a surface that was “probably not a shield but a bier or ceremonial vehicle,” and another, plain disc.

Much Iron Age art has been associated with river and lake contexts, but although the naming of the find as the Tal-y-Llyn hoard implies that it was associated with the Tal-y-Llyn lake, this may be misleading.  The hoard was not found overlooking water and only has a marginal relationship to the lake, as Toby Driver emphasizes in his 2013 discussion of the location of the find (reproduced on the Coflein website):

Savory’s reconstruction of Shield 1 from the Tal-y-Llyn Hoard. Source: Savory 1964, p.20

The find spot is marked by a prominent glacial boulder, naturally fallen into its present position and propped up on massive upright stones so as to resemble an artificial ‘burial chamber’.  Beneath the boulder is a dark, naturally formed ‘chamber’ which may have attracted Iron Age people to use the site as a place of deposition. The find spot lies alongside the modern Minffordd path up to Llyn Cau and Cadair Idris, suggesting considerable antiquity to this particular route. Across the path from the propped boulder, and below the line of the track, is a likely former spring head formed of rock slabs on three sides of a cleared, damp area. This spring head may have further influenced the hoard site. The boulder marking the find spot is the most prominent and impressive of its kind flanking the path as it ascends from the valley floor to the open mountain above. It is perhaps the only boulder formation which may have suggested an artificial construct or chamber to Iron Age people. It is likely that the corrie lake at Llyn Cau was the focus for any traveller climbing this path in antiquity, perhaps for ritual purposes, and therefore the attribution of the hoard to ‘Tal-y-llyn’ is potentially misleading in the interpretation of its landscape context.

Although the hoard could have been deposited to honour the spring, or the route to the corrie lake, Savory contends that the hoard was actually a secondary deposition, part of a larger hoard or burial site that had been plundered.  He suggests that if this was the case, the cache was not deposited for ceremonial reasons at the location where it was found, but was hidden far more mundanely and on a temporary basis for later collection.

Detail of the zig-zag and basket-fill designs on Shield 1. Source: Savory 1964, plate VII

The ornamentation on the metalwork on the first shield contains similarities to continental examples, showing the influence of the European La Tène, particularly in the traditional rocked-tracer technique, but also shows departures, most significant of which is the basket-work background and the trumpet finial that became features of the insular style.  Savory suggests that the pieces could all derive from a single workshop or group of related workshops.  Although the reconstruction of one of the shields has striking similarities to the shield from Moel Hiraddug hillfort in Flintshire, Savory says that the Tal-y-Llyn example must be seen as a forerunner of both this and the one found at Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey.  The second shield is represented by a shield boss, of which two fragments were found in the hoard, oval and domed and about 6 inches wide.  The curvilinear pattern is not distinct, but the ornamentation is clearly La Tène. 

The two trapezoid plaques are remarkable and have few parallels anywhere in Britain.  They are both 6 inches long and 4.1 inches wide at the top and 2.3 inches wide at the base, framed with embossed moulding.  They are made of a thin copper and and zinc alloy with only faint traces of tin and contain hole for rivets.  They are decorated with opposed human heads, top and bottom, sharing a neck, resembling continental examples.  The function of the plaques remains unknown.

Two of the four composite discs in the National Museum of Wales. Source: The Modern Antiquarian

The four composite discs each consist of two pairs of metal pieces, with diameters of 5.5 (the upper) and 6.5 inches (the lower) respectively, one attached to the other with rivets.  Each disc in the pair was decorated, the smaller brass-coloured disc with an open-work pattern and the larger with La Tène curvilinear patterns, the larger with a decorated hollow rim into which the smaller disc is inserted, its surface covered by tin beneath the smaller disc, visible through the open pieces on the bigger disc, providing a contrast of colours.  They were attached to another, large flat surface by rivets, but it is not clear what.  The open-work pattern and the “whirligig triskele with lashing tendrils or streamers attached to its limbs” again reference continental designs, although Savory says that the streamers are a uniquely British addition to the motif.

The second shield boss. Source: Savory 1964, plate VIII

Megaw suggests that the faces on the trapezoidal plaques are far from benign and represent severed heads, an appropriate image for a warrior society.  Waddell has considered the Tal-y-Llyn hoard in terms of solar imagery, specifically the journey of the sun through the night sky, often associated with a solar boat, a concept perhaps more familiar from ancient Egypt.  For those who wish to explore this interpretation, his paper “The Tal-y-Llyn plaques and the nocturnal voyages of the sun” is available online.

The date of the hoard remains uncertain, partly because of the presence of objects from different periods and partly because the hoard may have been a secondary deposition.  In 1966 Spratling recognized that one of the items in the hoard was a Roman lock escutcheon, which made no difference to the dating of the Iron Age La Tène metalwork, but potentially sheds light on the date of the deposition of the hoard itself.  The Coflein website provides a useful summary of this issue:

The four Composite Discs. Source: Savory 1964, plate IV

The date of the Tal-y-llyn hoard has been a matter for debate. The decorative bronze work suggested a date in the Iron Age, but amongst the hoard was a piece of Roman bronze. This meant that the hoard could not have been deposited before AD 43. In addition to this, the decorative methods on some of the other bronzes used techniques that are only known to have been present at the very end of the pre-Roman Iron Age, and one of the items was made from brass rather than bronze. This was also very rare in the Iron Age.

As well as the sites mentioned above, other La Tène metalwork finds in north Wales include the hanging bowl/helmet of Cerrigydrudian and the Trawsfynydd tankard in Gwynedd, the necklace/collar from Clynnog on the Llyn Peninsula and the firedog at Capel Garmon near Conwy.  To the south of the river Dovey, examples are Pen Dinas Hillfort in Ceredigion and Croft Ambrey Hillfort near Leominster in Herefordshire.

 

References:

Darvill, T. 1987.  Prehistoric Britain. Routledge
Driver, T. 2013.  Field Visit. RCAHMW, 11th December 2013
Megaw, J.V.S. 1970. Art of the European Iron Age.  Adams and Dart.
Savory, H.N. 1964. The Tal-y-llyn Hoard. Antiquity Vol.38, Iss.149, p.18-31
Savory, H.N. 1966.  Notes and News: Tal-y-Llyn revisited.  Antiquity, Vol.40, p.305
Spratling, M.G. 1966. Notes and News: The Date of the Tal-y-Llyn Hoard. Antiquity, Vol.40, Iss.159, p.229
Waddell, J. The Tal-y-llyn plaques and the nocturnal voyage of the sun. In (eds) Britnell, W.J. and Silvester, R.J.  Reflections on the past : essays in honour of Frances Lynch. Cambrian Archaeological Association (available online).