The Roman Rivals

A circular walk of 5 miles including 1,800 feet of elevation overall. Start Point: The car park at Porth y Nant, Llithfaen, Llyn Peninsula, Gwynedd. LL53 6NU.  Map References: SH 353440 or Lat: 52.967993 Lon: -4.453934 

adult-blur-boots-1452784This walk includes three modest peaks known collectively as Yr Eifl, or The Rivals. Some scrambling required down to the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, but nothing especially challenging and much of the route is on good clear pathways forming part of the coastal network. On a clear day, the views from Garn Ganol reach as far as the Isle of Man, the Wicklow mountains in Ireland and the Lake District, as well as the whole of Cardigan Bay.

An area rich in ancient history, the smallest and most northern summit is Garn For. The central (and tallest) summit, Garn Ganol, features a cairn and a trig point, and those extensive coastal views. The eastern summit, Tre’r Ceiri, is home to one of the most well-preserved Iron Age hill forts in Britain. There was an extensive survey in 1956 from which evidence of occupation during the Roman period dated from 150 to 400 A.D. And at the start of the walk over the Graig Ddu cliffs, there are views of Nant Gwrtheyrn and the remains of three quarries which were established in the area during the 1860s. During the late nineteenth century the village of Porth y Nant consisted of workmen’s houses, a shop, a bakery, a mansion, a school, and a chapel. Sadly, once the quarries closed around 1950, the village was abandoned and the buildings fell into disrepair. Today, the beautifully renovated site hosts the Welsh Heritage Centre and down to its stunning location, it’s also a popular wedding venue.

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The route

  1. From the car park, head up the wide stone track as it winds gradually towards the pass between Garn For and Garn Ganol. Garn For is an optional climb and the way is mostly along man-made steps forming part of the quarry and communications station. The real climbing begins when you pick up the clear track heading towards Garn Ganol, and the way is clear to see snaking towards the summit.
  2. Towards the final third the path is strewn with boulders and some negotiation is required to make the final climb; mostly bearing left to locate the narrow path. This winds up to the summit, then turn right at the top to find the cairn and the trig-point.
  3. From the trig-point, begin to descend on a path heading in an easterly direction towards Tre’r Ceiri. At the bottom, pass through a kissing-gate by a footpath sign and continue across the flat, marshy area covered in heather, bilberry and cotton grass.
  4. The final ascent to the fort is an easy climb as you head up towards the perimeter wall, at one point passing through a wide entrance with stone ramparts. From the summit it’s easy to see the formation of the original fort.
  5. Return along the same route, but then turn left in a south-westerly direction as you reach the final section of the boundary walls, where a clear grassy path hugs the base of Garn Ganol. Pass through the metal kissing-gate and continue ahead along the grass track by a footpath sign.
  6. Before the white cottage take the right fork and head upwards, continuing on a wide grass track. Then at the top, turn right as you reach the wall and keeping the wall to your left, follow the track back down to the car park.

The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.

St Mary’s Church on the River

They delved in the meadow where the old stones lie, but deep in my bed, O safe, safe was I. For Christ He was slain where other regions trod, and I shall rise again from thy acre, God.

I have a fondness for local churches, and St. Mary’s at Caerhun has plenty of ingredients to satisfy my historical muse, especially since this particular church occupies the site of a Roman fort, that of Canovium. Even the name itself has a magical, filmic quality. Despite my well-oiled imagination it’s not easy to visualise some 500 Roman guards and over 100 mounted cavalry who were stationed here 2,000 years ago, in such present-day tranquility. Their job would have been protecting the mines and those important trade routes across Snowdonia, and to defend the river crossing as traders moved from Chester to Caernarfon. Scattered in the fields flanking the river are the remains of the ramparts, and a bath-house. The Romans abandoned the fort in the 4th century and thereafter, legend suggests it was occupied by Rhun ap Maelgwn, King of Gwynedd.

It’s presumed the original church here was built around the 13th century but the only datable material is the walls (partly red sandstone blocks which were part of the original fort) and the font. And it was most likely built by Cistercian monks, who had a penchant for dedicating all their churches to the Virgin Mary. It has a twin bell-cote with a date of 1657 inscribed along with the warden’s initials, but no evidence of there ever being a second bell. The lychgate is especially grand, designed to provide shelter for coffins before funerals: the seats at either side were for the pallbearers to sit whilst they waited for the priest. And I love the three yew trees in the grounds, dated at around 1,200 years old. In Christian symbolism yew trees are associated with The Resurrection but the main reason for their existence here was the harvesting of the wood to make longbows! Unfortunately, yew leaves are poisonous to cattle and sheep which is why these trees are usually enclosed within church grounds.

IMG_3162Today, St. Mary’s is a haven for history lovers, bird watchers, walkers and worshippers. And of course, sheep. The birds, the flora and fauna here are well-protected and documented. The church carries a full list of sightings, and from a writer’s point of view, I do like to be able to attach names to local birdsong, to add that all-important authenticity. Buzzards are common throughout Snowdonia, their distinctive circling and mewing always attracts attention, as do the red kites. It’s the smaller species which are more difficult to identify. Apparently, Caerhun is the most likely place in North Wales to see a hawfinch. The finches are attracted by the resident yew trees, along with the mistle thrush, fieldfare, redwing, pied wagtails and brambling. During April, swallows migrate from Africa and nest under the lychgate. These are easy to spot, catching insects on the wing. And down on the river there’s a whole host of waterfowl: egrets, herons, geese and the ever present herring gulls.

Is it a strange pastime to read gravestones? I did this a lot as a child. There was no creepy angle, I think it stemmed more from an interest in people and their lives. One headstone which makes for difficult reading though has been used as edging for the church roof. Apparently it belongs to Richard Hughes of Tal Y Cafn, dated 1702. When restoration work was carried out in 1970, human bones were found embedded into the walls along with a medieval stoup. No one knows if they were anything to do with poor Richard Hughes up on the roof or whether the bones belonged to an important family who needed to remain hidden, perhaps during The Reformation to avoid their destruction.

More conventionally, several victims of The Dolgarrog Dam Disaster in 1925 are buried here along with a 13th century chieftain, the Ferryman and the Nickson family who donated the stained glass window.

Other notables are two Liverpool businessmen, a cotton merchant and a copper-mill owner. Two servants, Jacques Anrioud and Jane Jones married in Paris in 1873 but are both buried here. I’d love to know their story…

Maybe I should write it anyway and it could be a historical time-slip novel, a pulling together of the present and the past. Dashing, romantic Jaques from Paris and a scandalous affair with local Welsh maid, plain Jane from Caerhun.

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Watch: http://www.barksy.tv/videos/canovium-roman-fort/

Words and photography by Jan Ruth.