Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
Clearly, something serious went on at Strumble Head. Pembrokeshire’s Strumble Head, aka The Pencaer Peninsula, is known for its stunning scenery and the Strumble Lighthouse. It was also the location, at Carregwastad Point, of a minor, unsuccessful, French invasion in 1797. Long before that, however, our distant ancestors seemed to be particularly busy over on the west of the peninsula.
I was driven by fast car (a Ford Fiesta 1.2) through narrow lanes north of Fishguard, arriving with a crunch and billow of dust at a small car park at grid reference SM898388. On the OS map of Strumble (OL35 or LR 157), this is shown on a minor road just north of the delightfully named hamlet of Harmony. On further inspection, the map reveals ancient features marked in Gothic script: to our immediate west, Garn Fawr fort; to the east, Garn Fechan fort; the mysterious Ysgubor Caer; elsewhere, ‘burial chamber’, ‘standing stone’. Boots were donned and my trusty companion and guide and I set off along the trackway up to Garn Fawr. The landscape thereabouts is rough, rocky moorland: bracken, heather, gorse and bramble predominate. It was August and the heather, gorse and other plants at ground level were in bloom, creating a patchwork carpet of contrasting colours – purples, yellows, reds, blues and greens. Recent weather had been hot and dry and the scent of the flowers and aroma of hot earth radiated up as we walked. Altogether, it was an extraordinary sensory experience, perhaps heightened by an awareness that fellow humans had shaped the landscape two or three thousand years, or more, before we had got there.
In fact, the landscape was first created by intrusive volcanic activity more than 440 million years ago, whereby molten rock pushed upward, not erupting, but cooling underground, forming extremely hard rocks. These tough igneous intrusions have been left exposed as softer materials around them have weathered away. Garn Fawr is one such ancient intrusion, as is Garn Fechan. Garn translates as ‘cairn, or rock’; fawr means ‘great’ and fechan ‘small’. *
Garn Fawr completely dominates its surroundings. At 699 feet (213m), it is the highest point on Strumble and there are spectacular views from the top; breathtaking as well as breathless, I thought. It is officially a multivallate Iron Age hillfort, which means it has more than one rampart; single rampart hillforts are ‘univallate’. On Garn Fawr, tumbled drystone walls link rocky outcrops to form boundaries and ramparts. The builders of Iron Age forts usually pick good places for their defences and, a mere century ago, someone obviously agreed because there is a WW1 lookout post on the summit. Looking back the way we had come, the smaller fort of Garn Fechan to the east is easily visible and close enough for mutual assistance. However, it is the view south-west along the coast toward St David’s Head that is really outstanding. The Irish Sea was deep blue, and still, and the vegetation on the nearby cliffs a dense jungle emerald green, as though it was an exotic, tropical, location, not Wales. We sat on a comfortable rock, happily munching sandwiches, gazing at the panorama in front of us.
An easy track leads downhill to a farm, Tal-y-Gaer. The boundaries hereabouts may be prehistoric and there is meant to be a tiny ruin nearby that may have been occupied by a medieval hermit, but this eluded us. There are attractive traditional Pembrokeshire cottages at Tal-y-Gaer, now used for holiday lets. What a fabulous location for a break – apart from an absence of pub.
The new destination was a promontory fort, Dinas Mawr – big fort. Dinas Mawr is also reckoned to date from the Iron Age and thought to have been the stronghold of a clan leader. It juts out into the sea, a towering lump of knobbly rock with what seem to be sheer sides plummeting into unfriendly-looking waters. It is a stunning location, but it is not for those of a nervous disposition, like me, especially, I thought, in bad weather. Access is a short distance off the Pembrokeshire Coast Path along a narrowing neck of land. As you get closer, it becomes apparent that there is in fact a modest patch of relatively level ground beyond what is clearly the heather-covered remains of a stone rampart and a deep ditch. It is also possible to make out the outline of what might be a hut circle – perhaps two. Not a great deal of space, though, for animals – or anything at all, really. And no fresh water supply. What desperation, I wondered, would compel anyone to live here? It feels like an island, a place to make a last stand. To use it as a fort, the threat would have to be existential. I imagine the only means of escape, as a final resort, would be to throw yourself, lemming-like, into the sea. Maybe the owners had a coracle, cunningly concealed on the far side, out of sight. Dinas Mawr is undoubtedly a great defensive position, but it has been speculated that it had some ceremonial or ritual purpose, for it cannot have been much use as a long-term residence, or in the event of a prolonged siege.
Immediately beyond Dinas Mawr is the guano-flecked islet of Ynys y Ddinas. My adventurous companion had spotted a footpath on the map, around the south of the fort allegedly leading to the invisible west side facing Ynys y Ddinas. It didn’t look much of a footpath to me. He set off to explore while I fretted nervously, imagining hideous happenings, wondering whether I’d hear a splash and how long I should wait before calling for help. I checked my mobile only to discover that the signal barely registered. The lad returned after 30 minutes, happy with himself and oblivious to my agitated mental state.
We set off uphill, back to the main track and Tal-y-Gaer. But instead of returning to the summit of Garn Fawr, we forked right, skirting around the hillfort. Another feature was marked on the map south of the fort, Ysgubor Caer, referred to in one source as ‘a defended enclosure’. Caer usually means a fort or stronghold of some sort; ysgubor * means barn, or granary. Was this Garn Fawr’s food store? There is never an archaeologist around when you need one. The path took us alongside a high and heavily overgrown stone boundary wall that looked as though it had been there forever. Scrambling up this at what seemed to be the right point revealed some kind of circular enclosure below, but it was impossible to look at it in detail.
Further on was a small, overgrown, seemingly rectangular, opening in the hillside with what looked like a shallow cave behind. A wooden lintel ran along the top of the opening. We wondered whether it was an entrance to a mine, but it did not appear to be a very deep hole. I fancy it was a gateway to the underworld, but it may be a spring, or well.
Just before we got back to the car park, the roof of a sadly derelict cottage appeared over the wall. An untamed fuchsia was running wild out of a long-neglected overgrown garden. I subsequently learned that the cottage had been the retreat of the artist John Piper (1903-92) and his wife, Myfanwy Evans (1911-97).
Here is part of the walk on the National Trust’s website – which also includes a useful extract of the OS map.
* Welsh speakers – please advise of any errors.