Stumbling round old forts on Strumble Head

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:21 am

Dinas Mawr from Garn FawrClearly, 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.

Garn Fawr on Strumble HeadI 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’. *

Garm Fawr hilltop fort, PembrokeshireGarn 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.

Garn Fechan hillfort, Strumble, Pembrokeshire

Strumble Head Strumble Head viewsAn 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.

Dinas Mawr promontory fortThe 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.

Dinas Mawr, PembrokeshireImmediately 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.

Dinas Mawr, Strumble HeadThis might be a good moment to mention that you might spot seals in these parts.  If you have been to Pembrokeshire, you will know that.

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).

John Piper's cottage in PembrokeshireAfter that, we went off to find a bleeding yew; but that’s another story – and not on Strumble Head.

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.

53 thoughts on “Stumbling round old forts on Strumble Head”

  1. This looks like a great place to visit. I’ve not been down to Pembrokeshire since I was a kid, but an old work colleague moved down there earlier in the year, so maybe now is my time to visit. Loving the photos 🙂

  2. Hi Mike – yes what a bleak place to live – and to be garrisoned to a fort and not able to leave – definitely not the ‘bestest’ of places to be sent to guard. Stunning area though … and thanks for the tour around.

    The John Piper reference is fascinating – as I’m going to write some posts about Coventry Cathedral – when I get around to it … and his design of the new window in the new Cathedral.

    Lovely post – thank you … beautiful scenic views too – as well as history. Cheers Hilary

  3. Fabulous post, Mike. We had a wonderful holiday on the Pembrokeshire coast many years ago when our younger daughter was about 3 or 4 years old. Every now and then we found something to amuse her and her regular chant of ‘I want to go home.’ was broken for a while. We didn’t want to go home, to her dismay. Your wonderful photos brought back the memories of a place just as beautiful as Cornwall (if not more so) but much less crowded.

  4. I know the area well, its great for watching the seal pups in September time.
    Also you were close to the memorial stone (marked on the OS map) to the poet Dewi Emrys. He was a friend of my grandfather they shared lodgings in Dowlais in 1908/9 I think.
    I guess the Bleeding Yew was Nevern Churchyard!

  5. A wonderfully written account – thank you!
    So full of interesting background and vivid description. Your photos are simply beautiful too – there just does not seem enough time to visit all of our wonderful places, here in Britain – great to be able to join you for your trips, and benefit from your insightful knowledge!
    I too love the description of your prompt arrival on this visit – a super contrast to the timeless images of steady land and seascape!

  6. Honestly, it would be a dream come true to visit this place. History, nature’s beauty, and great stories, all rolled into one. Thank you, Mike. I’m happy to be there, through you.

  7. I’ve always thought it would be great to rent a holiday cottage in that part of Wales. Wish I could have been there with you, munching and gazing. Glad you survived the trip. (Love your writing, Mike!!)

  8. LOVELY! I tried to follow along using Google maps, but they didn’t have many of the places you mentioned labeled. Thank you for the photos as well as all of the information…

    1. Thanks, Will. Ah, no – many of these features only show up on detailed Ordnance Survey maps. There’s a link at the end of the article to the National Trust website, which shows you more of the detail.

  9. I knew I must be misreading when I thought I saw – Old forts stumbling around – but I suppose that would be better than being called a tough igneous intrusion. That must be like blurting out an incendiary remark during an otherwise civilized debate. Then I thought I saw something about a shady cove, but realized my eyes were playing tricks on me again. It does seem like a strange place for the French to attempt an invasion. On the other hand, Dover is a tad obvious I suppose so why not.
    Sounds like you all survived then.

    1. Survived remarkably well, considering. I’ll tell you about it sometime! I don’t think I’d mind being known as a tough igneous intrusion, though I suppose it suggests poor social skills 🙂

  10. I presume the bleeding yew wasn’t a sheep which had cut itself – I look forward to reading about it 🙂 I like the cottage roof and love the views, especially the first one 🙂

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