Cwm Cadlan

June 25, 2021 0 Comments

At the centre of Penderyn is the Lamb Inn, with its blue plaque commemorating ‘Lewsyn yr Heliwr’, one of the leaders of the 1831 Merthyr Rising.  Almost opposite, there’s an ancient signpost labelled ‘Cwm Cadlan, Brecon County’.  It points to a lane off to the east.  After climbing gently for four or five miles across farmland and then unfenced country, the lane descends steeply into forestry above the Llwyn-on reservoir north of Merthyr.

For many years I passed the sign and wondered about Cwm Cadlan.  The only two things I knew about it were negative: that it’s no longer in Breconshire, but Rhondda Cynon Taf, and that though ‘cadlan’ means ‘battlefield’ no memory of any battle survives.  Last week I finally took the signpost’s hint and spent two sunny days exploring the valley: the first exploring with C. the nature reserve at its western end, run by Natural Resources Wales, and the second wandering alone on the high hills north and south of the road, in search of Bronze age monuments.

The nature reserve is unusual.  Most uplands in Wales are acidic, but the limestone springs of this area make the ground alkaline, and able to sustain plants that wouldn’t usually flourish, like bogbean and butterwort, sedges, liverworts and mosses.  They all need plenty of water, and NRW has restored the banks of Nant Cadlan to their original bogginess (you need good boots here), by blocking drainage ditches dug by farmers.  Rough paths lead both up and down the land to the south of the stream, and we followed both.  The reserve is well-known for the mysterious yellow globeflower, but though we saw many other flowers this one eluded us. 

As we passed through the fen meadows a chorus of birdsong flowed up to us from the woodland scattered around the stream.  We heard a cuckoo, a rare enough event these days (the next day I heard another, a little higher up the valley at Wernlas).  We crossed the wooden bridge across Nant Cadlan and spotted flurries of dark blue flashing over the water – a dance of damselflies.  When they rest on stones in the streams, wings held to body, they look as drab as dry sticks.  It’s only in quick flight that their rich colour hits the eye, but only for a microsecond.

We saw no one else in the nature reserve.  As we walked back down towards Pont Ceunant Du a large buzzard cruised across the road in front of us, as silent and sinister as a military jet.  We ate our sandwiches on the low bridge parapet and strolled back to Penderyn.  The peace of Cwm Cadlan gradually gave way to the clamour and smoke of the giant Penderyn limestone quarry.

Next morning I set out early from the point where the Cam Cadlan road enters the forestry plantation.  My plan was to walk a circuit of the hills flanking the valley, collecting on the way some of its most impressive archaeological monuments.  Cwm Cadlan has one of the highest concentrations of Bronze Age sites in Wales, and it’s possible to spend the whole day in a kind of prehistoric dream or aura.

The first three sites arrived quickly – less than half a mile along the valley, just south of the road.  They lie in a line and must be connected: first, a small, rather untidy ring cairn, then a large round cairn, obvious from the road, and finally, on slightly higher ground, a second, larger and magnificent ring cairn.

In their plan and construction these cairns seem simple – too simple.  For that very reason they keep their secrets close.  Two of the round cairns of Cwm Cadlan, Twyn Bryn-glas and Nant-Maden, were excavated over 60 years ago and revealed more complex histories.  Twyn Bryn-glas, constructed over three different periods, contained two cists, and Nant Maden also contained a burial or cremation pit in its centre, marked by a standing stone.  But no cairns in the valley have been excavated in recent times, and archaeologists admit that their functions may be various.  Uncertainty is often cloaked by use of the word ‘ritual’.  David Leighton, the expert on the archaeology of the western Brecon Beacons, says that ‘it is now clear that many round cairns were more than just burial mounds but also served as complex focal points of religious beliefs and practice’.  Unsurprisingly, belief systems of prehistoric people, and the practices that derived from them, remain as mysterious as they always have been.  Perhaps that is as it should be.  Standing beside a round cairn or in the middle of a ring cairn it’s reassuring to know that the minds of the people who built them, three thousand years ago, are beyond our grasp.

I turned away from the first group of sites and began to climb up the side of Cefn Sychbant.  The ground was mainly dry but the going slow: where to plant your feet was uncertain on the tussocky surface.  Looking back from above I had a better view of the larger ring cairn I’d visited.  Ahead, the other side of the ridge fell towards Pant Sychbant, which was indeed dry.  Towards the bottom many small stone structures appeared, of uncertain origin and date. 

Beyond Pant Sychbant lay Mynydd-y-glog, its long green wall speckled with exposed rocks. At its highest point, close to the trig point – with its long views south to Hirwaun and beyond towards Aberdare – was another large round cairn.  This one was a landmark, visible from all directions, and it pointed the way to three more large cairns, also visible from a distance, strung out along the ridge of Mynydd-y-glog to the north-west.  I followed the line – maybe a prehistoric ridge path – visiting each in turn.  All of them had pits in the middle, thanks to grave-diggers or people seeking shelter.  The conspicuous siting of these cairns couldn’t be more different from the one down in the valley.

I left Mynydd-y-glog, crossing a handsome small hill with springy turf, and joined an old track that once linked the mid-valley to Merthyr.  It fell gradually to a farm, Wernlas.  A very wet track, a permissive path under the Glastir scheme, led from the farm to the road.  From there another path climbed, past Esgair-y-gadlan, straight up the opposite hill.  In the heat of the day this was a sweaty climb, up to a linked range of hills, Cefn Cadnant, that flank the valley to the north.

After one of the summits, Garreg Fawr, I stumbled accidentally on another fine ring cairn – they tend to be sited rather inconspicuously – and then walked on to the highest of the hills, Cadair Fawr.  The summit has a strange flat rectangular summit, and a trig point with fine views north over the desolate expanse of moorland west of Ystradfellte and north-east towards Pen-y-fan.  From there it was a long gradual descent back to my starting point. 

I’d seen not a soul in five and a half hours of walking.  At one time, though, Cwm Cadlan was a much busier place – not only in the Bronze Age, but in historic times, when farming and local lime quarrying supported many more people.  It was the home of several characters of note.  Gwilym Harri, a Unitarian weaver of Garw-dyle and friend of Iolo Morganwg, published satirical and religious verse in the early nineteenth century.  One of his jolly verses goes:

O fewn i’r Garw Dyla’
Rhoes i’r anadlaid gynta’
Nis gwn yn mh’le, na pha rhyw dydd
Y chwythai’r un ddiwetha’

Lewis Lewis, ‘Lewsyn yr Heliwr’, was born in Blaen Cadlan.  And later in the nineteenth century Gwenllian Morgan of Beili-Helyg won first prize in the International Butter-Making Contest in London in 1886:

O sweet Gweny Morgan, y Ferch o Benderyn,
Brenhines blith-ferched teleidwyn y byd,
O Lundain hi ddygodd ogoniant ac elw, –
Bydd ar gof a chadw ei henw o hyd.

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