Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

On the trail of the standing stones

Five thousand years ago the people living in what is now the Brecon Beacons National Park, the area of Wales where markontour currently resides, were into megaliths, big time. This much we know because over thirty of them survive to this day, still marking out the valley roads and high passes in this lush, undulating landscape. They are extraordinary things to get out and see in situ, stubbornly remaining on the spot they have inhabited through so many human generations, and in many cases accessible enough to be able to get right up close and touch.

First raised in the late Neolithic period/early Bronze Age, these standing stones were named ‘megaliths’ by an Oxford don, Algernon Herbert, in 1849, conjoining two Greek terms “mega”, meaning “big”, and “lithos” – “stone”.

Archaeologists have advanced several theories as to their purpose, from boundary markers to signposts on ancient route-ways, but I prefer the notion that they signified a gathering point where scattered tribes would gather at equinoxes. Erected in prominent locations that no-one could miss, most still have plenty of space around them to house a big annual party.

We are lucky at Ty Cerrig to have some fine standing stones within walking distance, including one in a field in Bwlch which the farmer uses to prop up hay bales. But Maen Llia (map reference 924 192), which my parents and I visited yesterday, is in a different league, towering 12 feet above ground level (with six feet of foundations below), 9 feet wide and 2.5 feet thick, it resembles in outline a broad leaf – perhaps a Grey Poplar. It remains both beautiful and powerful.

Today, as quite possibly for thousands of years, it commands the valley road from Heol Senni to Ystradfellte (and there are 6 or so parking spaces alongside, leaving just 60 metres to walk). You can’t miss it driving, cycling, or walking down from Bryn Melyn, Fan Nedd, or Fan Llia. That said, only one of a party of ten happily chattering young ramblers who powered past our picnic spot paused to even look. “What’s that?”, she asked, and upon being informed it was a five thousand year old megalith, looked disappointed and carried on without a glance back. Ah well.

Had they admired Maen Llia, I would have told them about Maen Madoc a couple of miles down the road (map reference 918 158). This megalith requires a mile or so of walking from the Afon Llia car park, a stretch which sadly currently requires traversing a post-apocalyptic scene of sawn and torn tree stumps, for this is an area of commercial forestry. But its worth the effort once there and standing aside this ancient, enigmatic stone your mind can’t help but imagine the endless, altered feet that must have trampled across this very same path (albeit with more upright trees for company).

Like Maen Llia, Maen Madoc casts an enigmatic shadow, but is a little further south down the valley. It is reckoned to have been erected by Celts but also utilised by the Romans, who left some still discernible etched markings. It was hard to see on my first visit in the winter due to extent of moss and lichen, but in the summer you will find it if you look long enough. The same is true for Maen Llia, which in addition to Roman script also boasts some very neat early Victorian graffiti!

Paying pilgrimage to Maen Llia is also an excuse to wander around Forest Fawr, the most remote-feeling part of Brecon Beacons National Park. There are no big peaks here, but instead the visitor can enjoy a host of easily accessible stunning views, four notable waterfalls (from the very busy Gwaun Hepste car park), and loads of wildlife. My Mum was overjoyed to see a skylark rising and swooping whilst singing its joyful song whilst we sat by Maen Llia, and last time I cycled up here I got to watch a Hen Harrier unhurriedly preening for the best part of half an hour.

From Maen Madoc, it’s a short drive or cycle down into Ystradfellte, which is still proudly proclaiming its award as Powys Village of the Year 2004, or such like, but to be fair it is very nice. There’s a Post Office and shop in the church hall that opens 10-12 daily Monday to Friday and the New Inn pub, serves ale and food every day except Monday and Tuesday. 

Taking a circular route back home, we decided to give the overly-popular waterfalls a miss and instead went for lunch at the National Park VisitorCentre near Libanus. It provided gorgeous mountain views, alongside decent pub-type grub, including a cracking vegan carrot cake, and a large gift shop and information centre. There are also several electric car charging points and plenty of easy walks from the car park. It was a great place to finish a day out full of natural and human history.

References

  • Megaliths of Wales, Chris Barber
  • Prehistoric Peoples: their life and legacy, Brecon Beacons National Park
  • Nature of the Brecon Beacons, Kevin Walker

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