The valley of the river Leri (as it is named on maps) or Eleri, as those who know her call her, begins on the western edge of the Cambrian Mountains where the river waters fall from a lake into the narrow gorge of Craig y Pistyll. They run for twenty miles or so to reach the sea through the salt marsh between Borth Bog (Cors Fochno) and the sand dunes of Ynys-Las. In spite of the natural settings of both her source and her estuary, both are engineered places. At the end of the lake where the waters fall into the gorge there is a dam to regulate the flow down to the water pumping station on the nearest road in the village ofBontgoch, or Elerch, five miles away. But this is a lonely place and little detracts from the wild splendour of the open mountain and moorland that stretches as far as the eye can see even on a clear day when there is no mist. And it is a small dam, unlike the barrier at the end of the nearby reservoir of Nant-y-Moch that regulates the flow into the river Rheidol to a small hydro-electric power station miles downstream. These waters drain from the mountain of Pumlummon(‘five peaks’) as do the springs that give rise to the River Severn and the River Wye. Up on the summit Cei and Bedwyr stood in “the highest wind in the world” in their search for the things required by the giant Ysbadadden Pencawr for Culhwch to wed Olwen. So it is a place of great significance both in legend and its importance as the source of great rivers. Further east waters run off this range to fill the reservoirs of Claerwen and Elan for Birmingham’s water supply. But Eleri is a quiet stream running a short distance to the sea and supplying sweet water to the local population. Pumlummon is known as the ‘Mother of Rivers’ and the whole area is a place of water, held in the peaty earth as in a sponge. Waters of life welling up and then released slowly into streams and rivers. It is a realm of water spirits.
In their book Celtic Heritage, Alwyn and Brinley Rees compare the area around Pumlummon – known traditionally as ‘Elenydd’ - to Uisnech in Ireland where the Stone of Divisions stands. It is the centre which symbolizes the whole. By no means as high or as spectacular as the mountains of Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons, its central position between these gives it a symbolic significance, better appreciated by the medieval mapmakers such as Gough who, in his map of 1360 shows it as if it is higher than the mountains to the north and the south, through to Speed’s map of 1612 which gives it similar prominence. Eleri runs off to the West of the mountain, away from the great watersheds and once meandered to the sea through the remnants of a sunken forest, the semi-petrified remains of trees that can still be seen in the sand at low tide on the beach at Borth on the shores of Cardigan Bay. It is possible to trace the previous course of this mile or so of the river over the fields created by draining the bog. But now the last stretch runs in a straight line to meet the estuary of the River Dyfi and functions as a drainage channel separating the green water meadows from the brown lands of the bog. What river ever maintained its course for very long? Cwm Eleri is Eleri’s valley, the groove in the Earth the river has created, wide or narrow depending on the interaction of water, soil and stone. There are many things that might change a river’s direction; human interference has shaped most rivers for a while, but the river itself is invincible, the life-blood of the living world. So this sudden transformation from a sinuous bubbling stream to something more resembling a canal might seem an insult to Eleri in human terms. But somehow it suits the flat landscape of the bog and is symbolic of the lost land of Gwyddno Garanhir itself maintained by dykes and sluice gates one of which, left open, brought about its end. For this in legend was Cantre’r Gwaelod, a land under the sea, and it is a legend to which the sunken remains of the forest bear witness. Walking through the stumps when the tide is out it is possible to imagine the forest alive with birds in the green leaves, though the present reality is rock pools and oyster catchers foraging at the tide line. Along the estuary geese overwinter and in summer sand martens build nests in the banks. The bog broods darkly in the shade of mountains. Once it stretched north along the Dyfi nearly to Machynlleth, though most of the northern part of it has long since been drained for farm land. The small hills that rise from the flat plain all have ‘Ynys’ (‘island’) in their names, an indication that they once stood above wetlands. It was the realm of ‘Yr Hen Wrach’ (the Old Witch) who, if she visited you in your bed at night, would cause you to wake with the shakes.
Between these two ends of the river, Eleri runs through wooded valleys, only really touching any significant place of human habitation when crossed by the main road north from Aberystwyth at the village of Talybont where, joined by the waters of the Ceulan, the rushing waters once powered a woollen mill. Along the ridges of the valleys around here are a series of hill forts built to watch the approaches from the sea and now providing spectacular viewpoints to anyone with the energy to climb to them. Though I have walked from source to estuary, it is in these middle stretches that I came to know and love Eleri. There are places where it is possible to sit watching the flow for hours without seeing another person. These, to me, are sacred waters, the well of life flows through me when I sit here and I am part of the flow. And it is here, and in the woodlands along and above the valley, that I come to meditate and to commune with the spirits of the valley. The map of it I have in my mind is populated with sacred places to which I can go, on foot or in imagination, whenever world space or mind space allows. There is a place where the river swirls around a bend and runs over rocks making a music that I have sat and listened to, entranced. And I have knelt in the rushing waters and the words of a ritual for crossing to the Realms came to me from many years before: “Running Waters, Speaking Stones …”. And I have listened to the voice and responded with a blessing and a kiss, which she took, laughing, and tumbled it away.
There is a wood of oak, beech and birch above this spot, enclosed within a larger forest, where I have planted a seed of love in a mossy hollow and where the trees always welcome me when I come to sit among them to converse with the wights of the wood and feel myself in their company. Here I have felt closest to the Spirit World more often than anywhere else. There are times when the trees enclose me and the ground shifts beneath my feet and the wind blowing through that place is a spirit wind at once swift as an arrow and as still as a pond of clear water. Then when I emerge from the wood onto the forestry road it’s as if I have arrived there suddenly from I know not where. So I come often to these places and follow Eleri from her source in the mountains to her meeting with the sea. And if she is always running to the legendary realm of Cantre’r Gwaelod, so too am I always walking the paths to the Realms when I follow her winding way through the woods.
© Greg Hill - http://www.sacredwaters.co.uk/CwmEleri.html
Carreg Lleidr is one of Anglesey’s trickiest to find and difficult to access ancient pagan monuments. However, the curious-looking standing stone certainly rewards the effort required in visiting the small menhir.
Also known as the Robber’s Stone, Carreg Lleidr is ripe with folklore. The most popular tale attached to the standing stone is that it is a petrified thief who had stolen an expensive bible, whose cover was inlaid with precious gems, amongst other items, from a nearby church and was thus punished by it’s patron, St. Tyrnog. At midnight on Christmas Eve each year, the stone is said to drag itself from the soil to run three times around the field, pursued by demons wielding pitchforks aglow from the fires of hell!
Situated inland, Cat Hole cave is the easiest of the Gower Peninsula's famous bone caves to access and explore. Reached from Parkmill Heritage Centre by following the footpath through Parc-le-Breos, the cave can be found only a short distance north from the neolithic burial monument of Giant 's Grave. Set some 15 metres above the valley floor in a limestone rock face, the entrance to the cave can be reached by a rough track that rises steeply through the woodland to the east of the main footpath.
Cat Hole Hole, Rising High Above Parc-le-Breos
Tucked away, many would say hidden, in Gower's quiet countryside stand nine mysterious Standing Stones (Menhirs). Standing Stones pose difficult questions for archaeologists and historians alike. Despite often exhaustive research and excavations, very little is still known about these enigmatic megaliths. An assorted number of reasons have been suggested for their existence - funerary sites, way markers, boundary posts and ley line signifiers all number amongst present day theories for the stone's existence. All that can really be stated, with any real authority, is that these monuments were the work of Bronze Age Man. But whatever theory the present reader ascribes to these stones, their visual magnificence and historic importance can never be denied.
No-one knows exactly how many standing stones were once scattered around the Gower Peninsula. Recent theories have even suggested that one stood as far east as Penclawdd. Today, only nine remain to be visited. A word of caution, however, must be noted to those intrepid individuals willing to pass an afternoon following the succeeding route that visits all of these memorials. Some of these stones have become shy creatures and have hidden themselves amongst the tangled undergrowth of hedge boundaries and overgrown fields. None announce themselves to visitors in the manner of other megalithic Gower monuments such as Arthur's Stone (Cefn Bryn) and Giant's Grave (Parkmill). Many visitors to Gower must have tried to find these stones with the aid of a pair of walking boots and an ordnance survey pathfinder map. Of these, an unaccountable number must have failed. The stones' locations, even on the most detailed Ordnance Survey map, are vague to say the least and it took me several visits to accurately pinpoint some of the more retiring of the menhirs. That said, the present reader can now forego the hit and miss treks over Gower's farmland that may have hitherto dissuaded all but the most fervent against such visits. For the first time, a complete guide to reaching all of Gower's Standing Stones can now direct even the most uninitiated country walker to the splendour and brooding magnificence of Gower's mysterious menhirs.
Giant's Grave, Parkmill, Gower
About five miles North of Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan, lies Tinkinswood Burial Chamber - a spectacular tomb boasting one of the largest known capstones in Western Europe.
Tinkinswood has a low chamber, walled on three sides and two flanking walls either side of the mighty capstone that creates a forecourt effect in front of the monument. In 1914 the tomb was excavated and the remains of about 50 people were unearthed from beneath the capstone. (Sadly their remains are now believed to be in storage in Cardiff Museum. I disagree very strongly with this; in my view these bones should be reburied in the tomb.)
Tinkinswood is believed to have been constructed around 2000-1800 BCE in the Megalithic period, and there are many strange legends attached to it. For instance, if you sleep overnight there on Beltane (or some way the Summer Solstice), you are supposed to either become a poet or go insane. Having camped there myself on the Summer Solstice about ten years ago, I certainly haven't written much poetry in the meantime, although I can't really comment on how my sanity has been affected. The only odd thing that did occur on my vigil was at one point I heard footsteps and the sound of breathing behind me, but when I went to investigate (I thought a fellow Pagan had come to join me) there was not a soul in sight.
There is a certain sense of ancient grace present at Pentre Ifan. Allied with its brooding air of myth and magic, it is unsuprising to discover that this is the most popular megalithic site in Wales.
The tomb’s incredibly massive five metre long capstone weighs in at over sixteen tons but appears almost delicately held, eight feet clear of the ground, upon three gnarled and tapered supports. Appearing to all that the whole monument might collapse at any moment, it is easy for the visitor to wonder upon what supernatural intervention might be at work preventing it from all crashing to the ground. Such stirrings of the imagination are easily raised at Pentre Ifan.
It is believed that Pentre Ifan was an important site for Druid worship in the past and evidence of more recent occult practices were discovered here during this author’s 2007 visit to the dolmen.
The Sweyne Howes tombs (SS 421 898) are situated approximately 300 feet apart and were constructed by the peninsula's very first farmers. It was their funeral practice to bury their deceased along with certain goods and belongings (which they believed the dead would be able to make use of in the afterlife) and to then balance large slabs of stone upon the graves.
The northern most tomb stones are the best preserved of the two monuments, although neither anywhere near approaches the fine condition of the similar Neolithic tomb construction on Cefn Bryn known as Arthur's Stone (I'll publish more on that particular monument in tomorrow's post).
The Sweyne Howes Northern Tomb
Broad Pool, Cefn Bryn
Cefn Bryn is the Gower Peninsula's second highest point, rising 188 metres above sea level. As well as being Gower's dominant land mass, it also holds one of the densest collections of cairns and othe pagan stone relic formations in the whole of South Wales.
Over four metres long, two metres broad and two and a half metres high and raised on a series of angular stone supports, the capstone is an incredible twenty-five ton boulder of quartz conglomerate that was deposited here by a glacial ice sheet that crossed the entire South Wales countryside during the last great Ice Age. At this time the stone weighed a good ten tons heavier that it does today as some time before 1693 the rock was split cleanly in two. The stone was once the centre of druid worship and it is said that St. David took his mighty sword to the monument to prove it as an altar of false gods. The large segment of split rock still lays at the foot of Arthur's Stone.
Yellow Top Cliff, Gower
Scarring the massive limestone outcrop of Yellow Top Cliff (named after the yellow-orange lichen that decorates its rock face) on the south coast of the Gower Peninsula are numerous caves of various sizes and of differing archaeological significance. These are known collectively as Paviland.
The most important cave in the Paviland Series is Paviland Cave itself (pictured above). More accurately known as Goat's Hole (SS 437 858), the cave offers moderately easy access during low tide conditions only. A watchful eye should be kept on the sea, however, as the cave becomes isolated with the incoming tide. There is access to the cave at other tidal conditions, though these routes are far more difficult to navigate and have led to several deaths in the past. Formed by wave action, when the sea level was up to 8 metres higher than today, the cave entrance is pear shaped and faces S40 degrees West. Standing 10 metres high by 7 metres wide, the entrance leads onto a passage which continues at walking height for some 30 metres into the limestone cliff. This chamber leads into a chimney, from which daylight can be glimpsed 20 metres above, and to two hollows in the ground. These depressions are the remnants of the two major excavations of the cave, dated 1823 and 1912.
Goat's Hole was first excavated in 1822 by Mr. L W Dillwyn and Miss Talbot of Penrice Castle. Interested by the discoveries made here, the Very Reverend Dr. William Buckley re-excavated the cave the following year. It was during this secondary and more substantial exploration that one of the World's most important archaeological finds was uncovered. At the time, however, the discovery was completely misidentified. Buckley was the first Professor of Geology at Oxford at the time and was later to become Dean of Westminster. He was also a devout Christian and it was this latter fact that led Buckley into not recognising the full importance of his find.
Buckland believed that no animal or human remains could be dated earlier than the Great Flood that is recorded in the Bible. Misguided by his religious preconceptions, his dating of the skeleton was wildly off the mark. Another misconception of his also guided him into misjudging the sex of the skeleton as well.