Category Archives: Walks

Bryncrug Six: a self-guided walk in the Bryncrug area from “Country Walking” magazine

Years ago my parents used to take a magazine called Country Walking, which is still going strong, as a companion and guide to the walks they did all over Britain.  I am currently having a massive sort-out and today went through a large number of leaflets and walks, keeping some and disposing of others, always a horrible job.  This walk, torn out of the January 2004 issue of Country Walking looks excellent.  The introduction says that in 1993 local ramblers launched and won a campaign to save the route, known as Bryncrug Six, as a public right of way.  This is the victory referred to at the top of the article.  I have checked on the OL23 Ordnance Survey map, and the paths are all marked on it.  You can either head out by the Tal y Llyn railway, or park in Bryncrug, from where the walk starts.  Although I haven’t tried all of it yet, being somewhat obsessed with hillforts at the moment, I’ve walked the section between 6 and 7, which is excellent.  The untidy blue and purple annotations are mine, for my own use, as I found the black and white a bit of a jumble, making it a bit difficult to distinguish roads from streams.

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 relaxing stroll on the beach after a frustrating walk

Nearly every walk I’ve done around Aberdovey has been a riotous success, but on Saturday it all went slightly wrong in spite of the stunning sunshine.  I was trying to scope out a route to another hillfort.  I had already made the mistake of crossing a footpath through a field that turned out to be very boggy, so ended up with soggy socks and damp jeans, before turning onto a single track road for a couple of kilometers.  Its hedges were so high that I couldn’t see much of the scenery and when I turned onto the footpath it was so overgrown with brambles that it was a struggle to get anywhere.  There were a few nice flowers, including toadflax, lots of honeysuckle and a few late foxgloves, and a couple of damselflies and dragonflies, but otherwise it was just a fight against the increasingly vigorous thorny tendrils so eventually, when they were knee-high and seriously impeding progress, I gave up.  Fortunately I was in jeans rather than my usual shorts, which saved my legs, but it was disappointing.  There’s another approach that I’ll try on another day.  I decided to return home, stopping first at the beach outside the crush in Aberdovey itself, parking up opposite the cemetery.

As I crossed the dunes and walked across the grey pebbles down onto the beach, the sight was rather bizarre – facing towards Aberdovey it looked as though several lines of humans in the distance, in silhouette, were moving in slow motion towards me.  It was slightly eerie, shades of zombie invasion movies.  Fortunately, they were just out to enjoy the sunshine, like me.  There was a vintage RAF propeller plane overhead.  Many thanks to Hugh Tyrrell for responding to my request for information about it.  He says that it is a restored Avro Anson from Sleap airfield in Shropshire, painted in D Day colours.  It is owned by a aviation enthusiast who takes passengers for local trips. This time he was further away from home and was probably flying back after visiting Llanbedr.  It was a really marvellous sight, with a very distinctive engine sound.  An elegant visitor and a contrast to the super-fast jets that we often have roaring overhead around here, also rather fascinating in their own particular way.

Stonechat in the sand dunes

Click to see the details of an amazing crush of shells, in a part of the beach that has an enormous amount of razor clam shells. Razor clam shells always give me real craving for Portuguese food!

 

 

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/

White horses and honeycomb reefs at low tide – the beach at Sandilands (Tywyn)

After a walk along the Dysynni last week, I did a three point turn by the footbridge and drove back along the line of the railway.  Instead of turning left to head back towards Tywyn I decided to turn right over the level crossing and park up to see if I could reproduce the picture from the Cardigan Bay Visitor that I posted last week.    Unfortunately for that plan I had reckoned without the addition of a caravan park since the original illustration was drawn, and both the railway track and the village were completely hidden behind it.  On the other hand, the beach at low tide was a complete revelation.

This part of Tywyn is apparently called Sandilands, but is something of a misnomer.  There is certainly sand on the beach, but mostly it is a mixture of fine and coarse gravel, surprisingly harsh on the feet, with some swathes of pebbles around, all divided by wooden breakers.  I had never seen it at low tide, and was amazed to see that the sloping beach ended in huge green-topped rocks and lovely weed-filled rock pools with sand between them, with an enormous stretch of wide open sea on the other side.  The sea was splendid, with lovely white-topped waves chasing each other in, crashing on the rocks and pebbles and sounding just what a seaside should sound like.

There were quite a few people around, most large family/friend groups, but not so many that social distancing was a problem, and it was all terribly civilized.  I had really enjoyed having the Tonfanau beach all to myself, but it was also splendid to see people of all ages launching themselves into the waves and having a really great time.  The caravan park overlooking the beach takes the edge off the beauty of the place, but keep your eyes facing seawards and there is nothing to disappoint.

I was intrigued by what looked like huge boulders made of coral.  When I stooped to touch one, it was clear that these rock-like structures were made of sand, and consisted of fine walls dividing thousands of tiny tunnels. The beach is full of them, and they are really very lovely.  After a rumble round the web I found that they are Honeycomb worm (Sabellaria alveolata) colonies.  The reef structures resemble honeycomb.  The colonies form on hard substrates and they need sand and shell fragments for tube-building activities.  They manufacture the tubes from mucus to glue the tiny pieces together.  When the tide is out the worms retreat deep into the tunnels, but when the tide covers their reefs their heads protrude and they feed on micro-organisms in the water, including plankton.

Because there are rock pools, it is possible to see various seaweeds in their natural habitat floating freely in the clear water, a lovely kaleidoscope of colour.  In the pools themselves there were lots of tiny fish, which can be seen in the video.  On the actual rocks (rather than the honecomb worm reefs) there were limpets, barnacles and various sea snails, none of which we have in Aberdovey due to the lack of rocks.   Of course there are none of the shells that Aberdovey’s beach has in such profusion, because they get broken up on the rocks and pebbles but, together with the pebble beach at Tonfanau, it’s super that there are three such contrasting beaches such a short distance apart.

I had a lovely long paddle, and would have loved to have had a swim, but even if I had gone in with my denim shorts and t-shirt, I had no way of drying myself off.  Next time for sure, and I’ll start to keep a towel in the car!

Looking to the north, beyond the caravan park and the breakers, the beach was quite, quite empty. That too is a walk for another day, but it must be a really peaceful way of walking up to the Dysynni.

The video below captures some of the contrasts of the beach – people swimming and enjoying the waves, lovely coloured seaweeds in rock pools, sections of empty sea with waves chasing each other onto the beach, and that fascinating honeycomb reef.

A short walk along the Dysynni broadwater, August 2020

Last week I had already walked along Tonfanau beach, but was nowhere near ready to go home on such an unexpectedly sunny day.  The BBC weather website, which I checked just before I left the house, was promising storms so I had cancelled my plans to go hillfort hunting.  Although my walk started out with most of the surrounding hilltops sitting under large clouds, they eventually cleared and the sunshine was glorious.  So instead of going back to my car, parked by the Tonfanau footbridge, I turned along the footpath that wends its way along the southern banks of the broadwater and the river Dysynni, and I am so glad I did.  By the footbridge there were a couple of families with kayaks, all having a good, peaceful time, and a little further on there was a lady with two small boys swimming between the shore and a sandbank.  One of her sons announced with great satisfaction that that the water was “as hot as a bath.”  But the further I walked, the emptier it became, and eventually it was just me and the birds.  And what a lot of birds there were!

 

A mellow walk where the river Dysynni meets the sea – with oystercatchers

My walk last Tuesday, the only sunny day last week, took me back to Tonfanau.  Tonfanau railway station was added to the Cambrian Line to service the Tonfanau Army Camp, which opened in 1938 and was finally closed in 1973 after a 6 month stint as a refugee camp, before being demolished sometime in the 1980s or 90s.  The camp extended both sides of the railway line, reaching the beach to the west and spreading part way up a slight slope to the east.  I have posted about the camp here.  When Tonfanau was at its height as an anti-aircraft training facility, with emplacements of enormous guns along the field at the top of the beach, it would have been anything but a peaceful place to go for a stroll.  Today, however, it is probably the most quiet stretch of seaside in the Aberdovey and Tywyn areas.

The reason for the lack of human presence, other than fishermen some way out at sea in waders, is certainly because the beach is uncompromisingly uncomfortable to walk, sit or lie on.  Apart from a few isolated islands of sand or gravel, it is a pebble beach running down a shallow slope into a rocky foreshore.   Footwear is required.  This, together with the complete absence of gift shops, public toilets and ice-cream stalls, makes it undesirable for most families, and there is rarely any more than a handful of people there even at the height of the tourist season.  This makes it a very good retreat for sea birds, which line the water’s edge at a very safe distance from anyone who might be walking along the stony beach or investigating the rock pools.  Oystercatchers, terns and various types of seagull are all in evidence at this time of year.

The views along the beach are splendid.  After the recent heavy rain the Dysynni charges at high speed through a surprisingly narrow mouth into the sea, fascinating to watch, and you can see it and hear its roar on the video at the end of the post.  This understated but impressive meeting of the Dysynni with the sea is marked as Aber Dysynni (mouth of the Dysynni) on the Ordnance Survey map.  The sea itself makes a lovely sound on the rocky foreshore and gravel, drawing the gravel back as it retreats, and colliding with the rocks as it advances.  Above the sound of the sea and wind are the musical voices of sea birds.  As you walk along it, the beach curves around a long corner promising more of the same untroubled vistas over an empty beach, rolling white horses and, in the distance, the Llyn peninsula.  Behind the beach, looking east, are views of the major summits of Tonfanau and Foel Llanfendigaid, as well as the smooth green slopes of the hills between them

I started out walking along the top of the small “cliff” that runs along the top of the beach.  It is only a couple of feet wide, drops only about eight foot or so above the beach below and stops where the publicly accessible land meets the fence of a farmer’s field after about 10 minutes of walking.  It offers a terrific view down onto the beach, there are always some interesting wild flowers, and it is well worth doing if you are sure of your footing.

I then executed a controlled skid down a bit of the “cliff” that had collapsed into a sloping mound of earth, a quick way down onto the beach, and headed for the rocks.  The lush green seaweed  is glossy and lustrous, a great contrast to the darkness of the rocks in the bright sun.  The overall effect was delightful.  Water trickles through the multiple channels formed by the rocks, crossing the glistening gravel in a way that is quite unlike the sea flowing through channels in the sand at Aberdovey.

Someone has been having fun making pebble patterns in the sand and fields. Like most abstract compositions, it gives a curious sensation of something clearly created in the present taking on the character of something completely timeless.

Yellow Horned-Poppy (Glaucium flavum)

Small-spotted catshark eggcase (Scyliorhinus canicula), one of the smallest of all the mermaid’s purses.  There were two of them, one right at the top of the beach and the other in the field behind the beach.  They are so lightweight when empty that they travel on the wind.  For details on the subject of eggcases and the Shark Trust, see my earlier post.  The photos of the two eggcases have been uploaded to the Shark Trust Great Eggcase Hunt page.

I walked out onto a spur of sand to watch the oystercatchers, getting as near as I dared.  Unlike the video that I posted the other day, when what they were mainly concerned with was preening, today they were actually hunting for food and treating shells to merciless beak treatment.  Trying to get a little closer I scared them into flight, and they congregated a little distance off on a few rocks, looking very striking.

Oystercatchers at work

I’ve pulled a muscle in my shoulder, so the following video is not quite as steady as it might have been, but don’t miss out on the oystercatchers.  They are sublime.  The fast-moving water coming out of the Dysynni and churning into the sea is also truly impressive.  The Dysynni originates in Tal y Llyn lake, makes an abrupt turn northwest at Abergynolwyn and then resumes a parallel course to the Tal y Llyn valley in the neighbouring valley.  It passes the Ynysymaengwyn estate, finding its way through extensive reed beds, and emerges into the Broadwater, making its way around the low sandbanks before being funneled into the narrow channel into the sea.

Tonfanau Army Camp from 1938 to the present day

Some of the few surviving remains of Tonfanau Army Camp today, behind Tonfanau station, complete with grazing sheep, the sea just out of sight in the background

 

Tonfanau in the past and recent present. Source of upper image: AAJLR.org, ref tonp_067. Source of lower image: Coflein.

The first time I heard the name Tonfanau was when I was researching the Ynysmaengwyn Estate.  In the late 1870s John Corbett, who had purchased the estate, also invested in Tonfanau granite quarry to aid with his construction projects in Tywyn.  Recently I have been doing research into the hillforts on the hill behind Tonfanau.  In both cases my searches came up with a lot of information about an army camp that I had known existed but knew nothing about, and I became interested in the story.

The camp was established in the 1930s as an anti-aircraft artillery training centre, but it underwent many changes in role over time, before being nearly entirely demolished in the 1980s or 90s One of the most arresting things about this subject, is that there are a remarkable number of accounts and photographs available online by those who were stationed there.  The camp is not merely a thing of the past, it is something that lives on in people’s memories, and that gives lie to the few desolate, abandoned ruins that remain.

The impressive extent of Tonfanau camp shown on an Ordnance Survey map, circa 1960s. Source: AAJLR website, ref tonp_068

This is a short summary of what the camp was used for at different times, how far it extended over the surrounding area, what it consisted of, and what remains today.

I have made considerable use of the resources that I have found on the web, all of which are credited below in “Sources” with my sincere thanks.  Particular thanks must go to the Tonfanau page on the AAJLR website and its many contributing volunteers for assembling such a magnificent collection of photos, many of which are reproduced here.

If you fancy incorporating the remains of the camp into a walk, the best way is to drive down Sandilands Road, turning right just before the level crossing.  Follow the road to the Tonfanau footbridge, and it is about a 15 minute walk from there.  In summer it is a particularly nice walk as the verges from the Dysynni footbridge to the station are filled with a profusion of wildflowers.  Otherwise it is a matter of driving to Tonfanau station and parking up there.  You can cross the railway to go down to the emplacements on the beach, or walk up the road opposite the station to see some of the other remaining structures.  Otherwise it’s a matter of wandering around the publicly accessible parts of fields to see more.

Tonfanau camp.  Source: AAJLR.org

Unlike most of my posts, which look at things that are usually aesthetically pleasing, or at least have interest as industrial archaeology, the remains of Tonfanau camp are really very ugly, a thorough blot on the landscape.  In some ways, these camps that were dotted around the country (and there is another one, in much better condition, in Tywyn) must have been just as alien as Roman camps, just as uncompromising and just as much as an imposition, but eventually becoming a fact of life.  Unlike the Roman armies of occupation, these invaders of the landscape were British, and the camps were there to serve the nation, giving their probably traumatic arrival a positive reason for being.

Anti-Aircraft Training 1938s – 1957

Heavy ackack anti-aircraft gun at Tonfanau, ref tonp_274. Source: John Smith, AAJLR.org

The camp consisted of a series of fairly basic buildings, including brick-built huts, wooden huts, hangars and so-called Nissen huts.  Nissen huts, like bailey bridges (of which more below) were assembled from pre-fabricated parts to enable the rapid construction.  They used corrugate iron sheets to form half-cylinders that formed lightweight buildings, useful in a variety of situations.  They looked like gigantic pig-styes, a half-tube of corrugatged iron blocked at either end, one end containing a door for access.

The camp was built well outside the reach of the nearby villages, on a wide coastal plain beneath Tonfanau hill, spanning both sides of the railway line.  The Tonfanau railway station was added to serve the camp on the existing Cambrian Railway line, which itself linked into the national rail network.  By train, the camp was a few minutes from Tywyn.  By road, it was a matter of negotiating some B-roads and passing through Bryncrug before reaching Tywyn, some 30 minutes later.  The decision to put the site at a relatively remote location was probably related to keeping the camp away from most residential sites because of the noise that the camp would produce as an anti-aircraft gun range.  Either that, or this was the biggest flat-ish area available in the vicinity for the construction of this sort of camp.  Either way, the camp was neither a part of the village, nor completely isolated from it.  At some point a bailey bridge was established at the crossing over the Dysynni where the railway also crosses, substantially reducing the time taken to get into Tywyn.  When the RAF camp was built at Sandilands in Tywyn in September 1940, partly to build on an existing relationship that the RAF already had with the Tonfanau camp, communication and visits between the two camps probably became quite frequent.

Anti-aircraft emplacements at Tonfanau camp from the air. Ref. tonp_067. Source: AAJLR.org

As an artillery training camp, Tonfanau had various sites for training on different types of weapon.  The big ant–aircraft (AA) guns were mounted on permanent emplacements just behind the beach, as shown on the above photograph.  The foundations of which can still be seen above the line of the beach.   These pointed out to sea for target practice.  The targets were initially supplied by RAF Tywyn’s, which had a camp in the Sandilands part of town and later became known as Morfa Camp, which is how it is usually known today.  Disposable gliders were towed using Hawker Henley planes near to the position of the anti-aircraft emplacements, and all I can say is hats off to the pilots who took on that unenviable task!  Eventually these were replaced with an unmanned remote-controlled version of the Tiger Moth known as the Queen Bee, which must have been a lot safer all round.

Anti-aircraft guns in action, ref tonp_028. Source: AAJLR.org

A first hand account of the Anti-Aircraft training is provided by Stanley Briggs, who found himself at Tonfanau in 1949 after initial training at Oswestry before shipping out to Egypt:

“After our initial training we were taken by train to Tonfanau on the West coast of Wales between Aberystwyth and Barmouth. This is the Cardigan Bay coastline area, the nearest town is Towyn. Only the beach, a railway line and a road separated us from the sea. We had the sea on one side and the Cader Idris mountain, inland, behind us.

That bay is massive and ideal for target practice for our 3.7 guns, but I have to say that I didn’t fancy the RAF pilots jobs of towing a sleeve behind their plane while National Servicemen were firing at them for practice with live rounds.

The Cader Idris was ideal for physical fitness too, which our physical fitness training instructor (PTI) put to good use, we were all eighteen years old and I have to say that personally I really enjoyed every minute of that part of it.

QF 3.7 inch anti-aircraft gun.  Source: Wikipedia

The same discipline training continued at Tonfanau. It was here that we were confronted with the 3.7 gun, the Sergent in charge gave us all a good knowledge of how to maintain, dismantle and fire it. We all had to learn each others position on the gun in case one of the members of the team was killed in action (that was a sobering thought!)

The gun had a large barrel and was transported on a trailer consisting of four legs and wheels, towed by an AEC Matador lorry. Each leg had to be raised for the travelling position and lowered for the firing position. Other positions for the team of gunners were Traverse Operator, Elevation Operator, Tannoy Operator, and Ammunition Operator who had to lift a round up and put it in the breach and finally, the Sergeant who had the responsibility of firing. The first time I lifted a round of ammunition, my knees buckled as they were very heavy for a nine stone weakling, which I was at the time.”

There seems to have been a second level of artillery training at the site during this period, which took place after the heavy anti-aircraft guns had left, as described by Frank Yates who, at the age of 21, served with the Royal Artillery, Light Anti-Aircraft Battery and was attending the Officer Cadet course.

Aerial view of the remains of a small-bore firing range. Source: Coflein

“The camp was large, with brick and concrete hutments and purpose built dining halls, garages and the like, with the Garrison Theatre dominating the landscape. The camp had been Heavy AA before we moved in, but there were now two separate factions, the bulk of the Heavies had returned to their base Artillery depot at Oswestry, leaving a nucleus to run the firing camp. On the firing apron, between the sea and the railway, was an ex Naval 3” Gun, a weapon which fulfilled a dual role in the Navy. It had the reputation of producing the loudest ‘bang’ of any British gun and they once fired it for our benefit. It certainly lived up to its reputation! Before leaving the “Heavies” may I mention that they did not fire at a towed drogue, the tow plane would not have survived. There was talk of them using a radio controlled, unmanned target, a project easily arranged nowadays, but too unreliable in those days. . . .

After various demonstrations, witnessed from a head down position in the trench, the sticky bomb was shown. This was an anti tank weapon, although it would need a very brave or a very lucky man to get near enough to use it! It was a glass ball, like a small goldfish bowl, full of TNT and covered in stockinette which was impregnated with very powerful glue. The thing was provided with a handle, containing the fuse and firing mechanism. The bomb was smashed down onto the tank, deforming into a dome shape, a ‘shaped charge.’ The handle is released, the bomber runs away and the charge explodes in 4 seconds.”

Frank Yates goes on to describe what the camp was like to live in whilst he was there, and what sort of other training took place at the camp.  It’s a very engaging read, so do have a look at his entry on the BBC WW2 website.

Bailey bridge over the Dysynni. Photograph by Edwin Lines 1990, ref. tonp_278. Source: AAJLR.org

I am assuming that the bailey bridge that used to cross the Dysynni dates to this period.  It was still in situ in 1990 when former camp resident Edwin Lines took this photo.  Bailey bridges were portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridges. The concept was developed by Sir Donald Bailey, a civil servant in the War Office, between 1940 and 1941 by the British for military.  It was a portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridge that was was made up of prefabricated panels and easily assembled parts.  The can be carried by trucks and assembled by men without special equipment, using simple devices such as ropes and pulleys in a matter of hours.  Once a bridge has done its job it can be moved and rebuilt elswhere.  The bailey bridge proved its worth in the Second World War.  The Tonfanau one ran parallel to the railway bridge, where the railway bridge and the 2013 Tonfanau footbridge now cross the Dysynni.   As they were designed to be able to carry tanks, I assume that this one could carry light vehicles as well as pedestrians, which would have substantially improved access to the bright lights of Tywyn!

All Arms Junior Leaders’ Regiment 1959 – 1966

Entrance sign to the All Arms Junior Leader Regiment camp at Tonfanau.  Source: 28 Days

The All Arms Junior Leaders’ Regiment (AAJLR) was established at Tonfanau in May 1959 and was disbanded in August 1966.  Its purpose was to train boys aged between 15 and 17½ as future senior non-commissioned officers.  Boys were sourced from a various points within the British army.

My thanks to Ken Hart’s excellent AAJLR.org website as the source of the information on this page, which talks about the activities that they boys were engaged in on a term by term basis:

Entrance to Tonfanau Camp in about 1964, complete with postbox. By Brenda Keens, ref tonp_265. Source: AAJLR.org

“The year was split into 3 terms with a fresh intake of boys each term. The first term of each boys service was completely dedicated to turning these 15 and 16 year olds into disciplined soldiers.  From the second term the prime emphasis was on education as all senior NCO’s were required to obtain the Army Certificate of Education [Class 1].  Alternate days were spent on Military Training which included Drill, Weapons Training, Driver Training, Map Reading and casually strolling over the gently rolling Brecon Beacons in wonderful Welsh weather fully equipped in thin denims, a poncho and carrying a webbing back pack.  The boys final term included specialist training according to the arm or corps he intended to serve in as a senior soldier.  Mixed in with all this there was sport, adventure training, outward bound courses and inter company competitions including the Rhyl cup.

Every boy also took part in the ‘Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme’ and to this end most evenings were spent doing a large number of hobbies. The rest of the time was spent cleaning the barracks or doing your personal kit whilst huddled round a coal burning pot-bellied stove in a futile attempt to keep warm.”

There’s a whole page on the AAJLR website dedicated memories of Lance Corporal Fagg who, in charge of the Guardhouse, was the terror of most of the boys at the site.  These short accounts bring daily existence at the camp to vivid life.  One contributor to the site, John Sabini, wrote the following, which is a nice introduction to an awe-inspiring individual.  Other accounts are often a lot more earthy!

The idea of over-wintering in one of those flimsy huts makes my All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment plaque (Photograph by Peter Woolridge, ref. cphoto_153.) Source: AAJLR.org

L/Cpl Fagg re-joined 3 RGJ sometime around 1967 in Iserlon Germany. Due to a quirk of fate I was allocated to a room with him (thankfully for only a couple of nights) when I moved from a Rifle Company to the Battalion Signals Platoon.
Did you know his first name was Hermes (a bit like being a boy named Sue) which could explain his bad attitude to his fellow human beings! He was a cookhouse NCO orderly in charge of tea urns and spud bashing. His nickname in the battalion was ‘Dog-End’. He disappeared mid way through our tour in Germany and I am not sure where he went; this was my last sighting of L/Cpl Hermes (Dog-End) Fagg, 3rd Green Jackets, The Rifle Brigade.
As he is probably now in the great guard room in the sky, I am sure he would appreciate that he is immortalised (!) on the AAJLR website and that he made such a lasting impression on all those who had the misfortune to cross his path.

The idea of over-wintering in one of those flimsy huts makes my blood run cold!

PYTHON site 1968

In 1968 the camp was one of the designated sites for the PYTHON project, a plan for continuity of government in Wales in the event of nuclear war.  There’s not much information on the web on the subject of PYTHON, and what is here comes from a Wikipedia article, the main source of which was the book The Secret State: Preparing For The Worst 1945 – 2010 by Peter Hennessy (Penguin 2014).  The idea was to disperse government officials to various locations instead of centralizing them in one place.   Sites were chosen on the basis of existing accommodation, independence from the national power and water grids, nuclear fallout protection and distance from likely targets.  Tonfanau Army Camp was temporarily designated as the PYTHON location for Wales.  Each PYTHON group would be supported by dispersed sections of the United Kingdom Supply Agency and the National Air Transport Agency.  Aberystwyth University replaced Tonfanau as the preferred location soon afterwards, which is probably just as well as I don’t see government ministers surviving a mid-Wales winter in those huts, never mind a nuclear war!

Uganda-Asia refugee camp 1972 – 1973

Photograph of Ugandan Asian family at Tonfanau by Jim Arnould, Nova (April 1973). Source: Oxford University Press blog

The camp was re-opened very briefly to house Uganda-Asian refugees.  Uganda had been a British colony, and while India was still also a British colony, the British government had encouraged Indian professionals to come to Uganda to seek prosperity by helping with railway construction and the overall improvement of the economy.   The offer was taken up with enthusiasm, with thousands of Indian families settling in Uganda and making good livings.  Their successes were at first welcomed and then regarded with suspicion by Ugandan communities.

In 1962, Uganda was granted independence and in 1971, military leader Idi Amin staged a coup and came into power.    Only a year later, on August 5th 1972, Amin inaugurated a policy of economic reform, an “economic war” in his own words, that included the expropriation of properties owned by Asians and Europeans.  He gave Ugandan Asians 90 days noticed to leave the country, calling them “economic bloodsuckers,” claiming that they were draining the wealth of the nation at the expense of native Ugandans.  Their departure was hastened at gunpoint, giving them little doubt about their fate should they stay.

Of 80,000 Ugandan Asian exiles, nearly 29,000 with UK passports came to Britain.  The official Ugandan Resettlement Board (URB) had the thankless task of providing them with temporary accommodation until permanent resettlement could be arranged, and took the decision to place them in refugee camps.  Tonfanau was one of sixteen refugee camps chosen for the task.

The entrance to the Cafe at the Tonfanau refugee camp, when the camp was in ruins. The bright, lively scene is very much at odds with the drab surroundings, and gives a sense of how hard it must have been to relocate to such a bleak place. Source: 28 Days website.

Tonfanau camp had been closed for nearly four years when it was suddenly dragged back into service to house over 3000 of these refugees for a period of six months, and must have been in somewhat poor condition. It was, in fact, only chosen as a last resort when other locations had been rejected.   Captain Freddy Fuller was put in charge of the camp, probably very well qualified as he had spent 25 years running an Outward Bound school.  Volunteers from the surrounding community formed a welcome group to provide the newcomers with essentials, including clothes and toys for the children, and each volunteer was instructed to assign themselves to individual families to assist them.  However, there was very little furniture and most of the exiles had to sit on the floor. It must have been a freezing, bleak and worrying winter in those bare huts, and Jordanna Bailkin’s book Unsettled repeats James Hamilton-Paterson’s poignant report on the camp, seeing “miserable people in their gorgeous saris” huddling in Tywyn’s two fish and chip shops for warmth.  Bailkin describes how donations of clothes resulted in some peculiar and probably difficult encounters:  “Adding to the bizarre atmosphere, most of the clothes donated to Tonfanau through the WRVS [Women’s Royal Voluntary Service] were from the 1960s.  Chandrika Joshi, whose family stayed at Tonfanau for fiver or six months when she was 14 years old, found herself garbed in a brown rubber minidress.  Such outfits went largely unnoticed in camp, where everyone was similarly attired, but more ‘out of place’ when she went to a school a few weeks later.”

Fortunately, by the spring of 1973, all had been re-homed elsewhere in the UK.

Demolition of the site

I have been unable to find when the site was finally demolished, or why some buildings were left in tact.  It was probably done between the late 1980s and early 90s.  Apart from the bare handful of surviving buildings, it was a pretty thorough job.

Part of the site is used by Tonfanau Road Racing for motorcycle racing on a 1-mile track during the summer, run by Crewe and South Cheshire Motor Club.  A 2010 proposal to use the land for a new prison never came to fruition.  Most of the land has been returned to agricultural use and sheep now roam freely over most of it.

Below are a couple more of my photographs of what’s left of the site today.  For many more from all periods, see the substantial collection contributed by many volunteers on the All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment website.

Sources:

Jordanna Bailkin 2018.  Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain. Oxford University Press

Becky Taylor 2018.  Good Citizens? Ugandan Asians, Volunteers and ‘Race’ Relations in 1970s Britain. History Workshop Journal, Volume 85, Spring 2018, p.120–141
https://academic.oup.com/hwj/article/doi/10.1093/hwj/dbx055/4818096

Roy Sloan 1991.  Wings of War over Gywnedd.  Aviation in Gwynedd during the World War II. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch


Websites

28 Days Later Urban Exploration
https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/threads/tonfanau-military-camp-tonfanau-nr-tywyn-february-2015.94390/

40th Anniversary for Ugandan Asian Refugees in Wales
https://www.itv.com/news/wales/2012-07-31/40th-anniversary-for-ugandan-asian-refugees-in-wales/

Ken Hart’s All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment (AAJLR) website
About: http://www.aajlr.org/about/about_main.html
Tonfanau camp: http://www.aajlr.org/tonfanau/tonfanau_main.html

Memories of Frank Yates, Royal Artillery, Light Anti Aircraft Battery. Chapter 17, BBC World War 2 People’s War. Article ID A7375845
https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/45/a7375845.shtml

Stanley Briggs: Then and Now
http://www.stanleybriggs.com/art_nat_service1.html

Tonfanau Road Racing
https://www.tonfanauroadracing.co.uk/

Wikipedia article about PYTHON
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PYTHON#Locations