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Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Golden Road -- how old is it?

Above is a splendid photo taken by Phil Morgan -- kindly sent in for me to use on the blog.  It shows Foeldrygarn (the nearer summit) and Frenni Fawr in the distance.  The photo was taken from above the sheepfold on Carn Gyfrwy.

The main trackway stretching away into the distance is referred to locally as the "Golden Road".  It is certainly a well used track, in places entrenched into the terrain and in other places quite broad.  tradition has it that the track was a trading route used during the Bronze Age for the transport of copper, bronze and maybe gold items between SE Ireland and the bigger population centres to the east.  All unprovable of course -- although we know that many items were traded over quite large distances........

Was this trackway also well developed in the Neolithic?  And could it have been used for the transport of the bluestones?  Herbert Thomas, Atkinson and many others have pondered on that, but the difficulty with this route is that it peters out at both ends as the uplands give way to lower ground.  It is a typical "ridgeway" similar to hundreds of others through the British Isles -- along which people and animals moved over many generations so as to avoid the dense forests and terrain difficulties (and maybe the dangers of animals and marauding bands of hostile locals) in the river valleys and lowlands.


chris johnson said...

Beautiful photo and distracting, Good questions and I wonder what you think about possible answers. The "Golden Road" looks benign on the photo but it is rather exposed to the elements with a distinct lack of shelter.

There are several neolithic remains along the route, as you know and many more within a few miles. Banc Du is very close as is Carn Menyn. Like you I wonder where the road goes eastward, if it did in the neolithic. It seems to me the most practical route East would depart close to Crymych, thus traveling between the various river sources. Maybe you walked this area, I never did, so I don't know how practical it might be. We are entering some fairly remote country by British standards and off the hiking trails.

Anonymous said...

"an ancient track that would have been a main trade route between Wessex and Ireland when bears and wolves still roamed the valleys." - The Welsh Tourist Board.

Sounds like commercial propaganda is turning into a half baked reality again.

Anyone with any archaeological evidence - did they walk across the sea during the wolf years?

A Skeptic

BRIAN JOHN said...

Dear Mr Skeptic (sic)

What are you on about? Whatever the WTB or I (or anybody else) may say about this, it seems entirely logical to me that the ridges would have been used in the Neolithic and the Bronze Age for moving trading goods and animals -- in preference to the valleys and lowlands. do you have a problem with that? If so, why? And nobody is denying that there was sea between West Wales and eastern Ireland, and that there were such things as boats....

Phil M. said...

Hello Chris,

You raise the following valid points ----
"The "Golden Road" looks benign on the photo but it is rather exposed to the elements with a distinct lack of shelter."
And "We are entering some fairly remote country by British standards and off the hiking trails."

If the area is so in-hospitable and off the beaten track, I wonder why they chose to build a hill-fort on the top of the mound. Perhaps discomfort from inclement weather was out-weighed by the possibility that the location commanded respect?
I wouldn't want to live there!

chris johnson said...

So which way might they have gone from Crymych?

I read recently that there was an environmental problem in approx 2350 BC resulting from the eruption of a volcano in Iceland. Tree-ring data shows tough times in Ireland for a generation and I presume in Wales too. Which way did the emigrants go?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, the ridge and the summit of Foeldrygan are very exposedwoukld have been quite thin and patchy, and thus the ridge would have been easier to use as a routeway. Re the Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements, they are always assumed to be permanent -- but I have a gut feeling that they might have been seasonal or summer settlements, associated with upland grazing possibilities during the summer months -- with the tribal or family groups moving down into the woods during the colder and wetter part of the year. This is probably very difficult to prove archaeologiocally........

BRIAN JOHN said...

Bad weather conditions associated with volcanic eruptions? We have speculated before about Santorini and Icelandic eruptions. The trouble is that there were lots of Icelandic eruptions, and others in Europe (including the Canary Islands) as well -- and the pattern of tephra layers gives us some idea how frequent and long-lasting the effects were (via increased cloudiness, ash-falls etc). Spoke to a friend about this the other day, and he says a lot of work is being done on this by researchers just now....

BRIAN JOHN said...

Should have been: "Yes, the ridge and the summit of Foeldrygan are very exposed -- any woodland would have been quite thin and patchy....."

chris johnson said...

Phil, think the hill forts are much later. Defense reasons.

Anonymous said...

"it seems entirely logical to me that the ridges would have been used in the Neolithic and the Bronze Age"

Perhaps you have difficulty reading at your age? I ask what archaeological evidence does anyone have, which no one has responded and therefore we can conclude, there is none.

As for your 'logical' conclusions, thank you, but they are not exactly empirical evidence are they?

As for boats, if you have one, would you not use it to go all the way to your destination, as all Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements are on waterways?

A Skeptic

Phil M. said...

Hello Brian and Chris,

It's agreed that the hill-fort is younger, but is it not in human nature to build at, and expand, existing settlements. This is how we have cities today.

Brian says:

1)."Yes, the ridge and the summit of Foeldrygan are very exposed, woodland would have been quite thin and patchy, and thus the ridge would have been easier to use as a routeway.", and

2). "Re the Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements, they are always assumed to be permanent -- but I have a gut feeling that they might have been seasonal or summer settlements, associated with upland grazing possibilities during the summer months -- with the tribal or family groups moving down into the woods during the colder and wetter part of the year. This is probably very difficult to prove."

Would not the settlements have been of greater importance in the winter months when the low ground would have been extremely boggy?

I recently walked from the Mynachlog-ddu - Crymach road, up the bridle path (start = 51.954283, -4.690599,on 'Where's the path'), a treacherous bog area which if you are not wearing wellington boots leaves your feet stained brown for a week, and that's with many determined washes. Heavy going.

A small point that may be of interest.

If you still have 'Where's the path' on your screen. Use the distance measuring device to find the diameter of the centre cairn of Foeldrygarn and, using the same device, then measure the diameter of the bluestone circle at Stonehenge.
Is it just coincidence that both diameters are 27m, or was Foeldrygarn the original setting for the Stonehenge bluestone circle, which has since been buried by a cairn?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- the hill fort of Foeldrygarn is thought to be Iron Age, but may be older. Within it there are three very spectacular burial mounds, thought to be Bronze Age. I've always been intrigued by the fact that the presence of those mounds, presumably known at the time as burial sites, did not deter the later inhabitants from building all around them and in effect incorporating them in to their living quarters. So they were presumably not scared of them. They must have respected them, because they left them undisturbed.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Mr Skeptic,

I still do not know what you are on about. What's your problem with the ridgeway being used as a routeway? On the Preseli ridge there are a number of Bronze Age burial mounds on the summits or high points. Presumably people must have moved between one and another. Did they fly? Or swim?

And as for this: ".....all Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements are on waterways..." That is sheer nonsense. Clegyr Boia isn't on a waterway, and neither are the settlement sites on the Carningli uplands, and neither are the sites aroung Carn Alw. Robert, as I have said before, you are living in a fantasy world.....

BRIAN JOHN said...


Exposure is a terrible thing up there on those hills in the winter -- strong winds, driving rain, and low cloud. There are plenty of dry spots down in the lowland, available for winter settlements. Low hills, interfluves, little rocky knolls. Castell Henllys was one -- there must have been many others.

As for the 27m, Phil, hmmmmm.. There are a lot of things in this world that have a diameter of 27m. That does not mean they are related in some way.

chris johnson said...

Good point Phil. I remember in summer that the area is very boggy when you stray off the bridle path. Looking at the map you are actually walking along the source of the Eastern Cleddau - lots of springs :) The source of the Taf is close too. I get Brian's point about the difficulty of moving any big stones manually in the neolithic.

Hence my question about how to go East from the Golden Road? I suppose this is why all the wise men who have puzzled on this came to the conclusion that river transport was the only possibility, barring glaciation.

Foeldrygan is not much of a fort by the standards of a Maiden Castle and not easy to defend on some approaches without massive earthworks which are not there. I too wonder about the cairns.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Agree -- there are some very boggy sections on the approaches to Carn Meini and the "Golden Road." Where does the path go to, east of Crymych? Anybody's guess.....

The Foeldrygarn defences are no more, or less, impressive than those of any other Iron Age fortifications in Pembrokeshire -- either hill forts or promontory forts on the coast.The fortified walls are generally less than 3m high, but I suspect they might have had timber palisades on top of them in their heyday. Some of them (like Carningli) appear to have been slighted -- when, or why, we have no idea. At Foeldrygarn the section that has no fortified embankment is the section where rock cliffs are quite adequate. They used exactly the same technique at Carningli and around the coasts -- no point in building banks where they were not needed.

chris johnson said...

I read the Golden Road was also called the Flemings Way and used post-Norman times. I wondered about this because it is on the wrong side of the Landsker for Flemish people to have been wandering about and where were they going?

(The sheer number of castles the Normans built along the border between their territory and the Welsh gives a strong indication that it was not very safe to be on the wrong side).

Had the Flemings wanted to go North or East they would have used the sea, so what were they doing on this road and where were they going? The road to nowhere ....

Phil M. said...

Hello Chris,
I thought The Wise Men came from the east in ancient times, but I get confused :-)

Your question -- "So which way might they have gone from Crymych?"

If you get an opportunity, have a look at Shirley Toulson's book "The Drovers' Roads of Wales II, Pembrokeshire and The South", published by Whittet Books; it contains many maps that indicate the drove road network from west Wales to the Hereford area of the English border. The routes on the English side are covered by Richard Moore-Colyer in his book "Welsh Cattle Drovers", published by Landmark. It is thought that these drove roads were themselves of great antiquity.

The old drovers would take cattle, up to 300 at a time, on the journey east. The animals were of great value to the drovers, and delivering them in in peak condition was the priority.

Similarly, the bluestones were of great value to the people transporting them and I think the route for the bluestones, and the route for the cattle, would be substantially the same; and would have avoided the risk of a sea journey.

A drovers' road passes through the village of Eglwyswrw and joins the Golden Road, (which is also a drovers' road) just west of Carn Bica.
Incidentally, this drovers road, in addition to passing within 200m of Carn Meini, passes within 2 miles of Pont Saeson at Whitchurch (51.994288, -4.699059).

I suggest that the general route from Pont Saeson/Carn Meini would have been Crymych, Whitland, Carmarthen, Llandovery, Brecon, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Gloucester, Cirencester, Swindon. Marlborough and Amesbury.

Brians turn.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Phil -- I think you have got it all wrong re the old Drover's Road. The drovers road on Preseli crosses the saddle to the west of Carn Bica and then runs towards Carn Alw, passing Carn Goedog on the way. It's a highly rutted and well-used trackway, but it does NOT follow the ridge crest. iut's on the northern flank of the upland ridge. The drovers tried to steer clear of the open uplands as far as possible -- too exposed and too difficult to control the animals in open country.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Agree, Chris -- there is no evidence at all to support the idea that the Flemings ever used the ridgeway for moving about. They were lowlanders, who settled in the inner reaches of the Milford Haven waterway. I too have wondered where on earth this designation might have come from.....

Phil M. said...

Hello Brian,

Professor Moore-Colyer, and Ms. Toulson are the experts on drovers' roads, I'll accept their words for the time being.


BRIAN JOHN said...

I won't. Maybe they haven't bothered to do any fieldwork in the area? I don't have any of their maps in front of me just now, but are you sure they do not show the route to the north of the ridge, rather than on the ridge crest?

chris johnson said...

Thanks Phil, brilliant information. Just to help me today and before I buy the book, how did they get to Whitchurch.

Crymych itself does not have an old history as far as I know. I mentioned it because it is easy to find on a modern map. Perhaps more relevant to our quest in the neolithic is Pentre Galar, a mile or so south. Lots of neolithic and mesolithic finds, supposedly a henge, AND an Axe Factory. Wonder if Brian did any field work here?

Brian, you are right that the Drover's Road over Prescelli is running a bit north of the ridge top - of course you are, you know this area like the back of your hand. However, I think we are only talking a few hundred metres, following the contours?

BRIAN JOHN said...

The main drovers' staging point in this area was at Eglwyswrw, from which the animals were driven over into the Teifi Valley and then up towards Newcastle Emlyn. The route across the saddle near Cerrig Marchogion makes perfect sense, then past Carn Goedog and Carn Alw, and down into the lowlands towards Eglwyswrw. The route was more S-N than W-E. Crymych hardly existed at the time -- it is really a railway settlement, built when the railway line to Cardigan was constructed.

Robert John Langdon said...


Thanks for the thought.

But by the Bronze Age the waters would have receded and walking would have been the only alternative.

Skeptic, the round barrow markers are the only indication of paths of this period until the iron age - these will be used in conjunction with the peaks and other high positional points.


Phil M. said...

Chris, all place names relate to modern day and, as you say, are for giving a reference point on a map to aid the discussion.
I think they would have travelled overland to Whitchurch.

The amount, or the accuracy, of Toulson's and Moore-Colyer's field work are unknown to me.
However, until proven otherwise I give them the benefit of the doubt and say that both parts of their research were conducted to the same level as yours, before you wrote your book.

I spoke to Shirley Toulson about a week ago, but the question of using her maps didn't crop up. If you wish I'll give her a call and see if she'll allow me to send you a copy of the relevent one. Failing that you'll have to buy the book.


chris johnson said...

Thanks Phil.

The Axe factory is supposed to be half mile east of Pentre Galar near a farm called Glyn y fran. I don't think Brian has been there so I'll take a look later this month. Although perhaps Brian can save me the trouble? Even better, he might know the farmer so we can go together. The archaeology is tucked away behind a 30 quid firewall.

The route south from Pentre Galar would take you past Glandy Cross and towards Lampeter Velfrey before following the current A40 to Whitland and Camarthen. Is this what you mean? I am not sure if I was lugging 250 tons of stone I would want to go south when I know I need to go east but likely these "famous" centers were connected in the Neolithic with some kind of trackway existing.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Ah -- the famous axe factory again! Much written about and frequently assumed to have existed (largely because in their wisdom the archaeologists have classified a whole group of axes as being made of "Preselite" (which as a rock type does not exist, any more than bluestone does). So they have assumed that because there are many "Preselite" axes in various collections, there must have been a factory. Not so, I'm afraid -- it's much more likely, as Stephen Briggs has pointed out, that "Preselite" axes were made here, there and everywhere, where convenient erratics were available for working.

To trace of this famous axe factory has ever been found, in spite of much searching.

The assumption is that it must have been somewhere around Pentregalar (near the TV mast) or near Glandy Cross -- simply because in that area there are a good number of ancient sites. See the Figgis book for mire info.

I have wandered about in that area for many years, and have seen nothing special.....

BRIAN JOHN said...

Sorry -- I meant to type "No trace of this factory has ever been found...."

Anonymous said...

" On the Preseli ridge there are a number of Bronze Age burial mounds on the summits or high points."

That's nice, but you were talking about the 'Golden Road' and that does not have any Burial Mounds according to my OS map, as evidence to the date of the path.

As for Clegyr Boia and Carningli uplands, these are not 'settlements' unless your Neolithic Welshmen are mountain goats?

The neolithic and beyond is the 'Farming Revolution' and you don't farm a hilltop as you need water for the crops - so they are by waterways. You traditionally use hilltop fortifications when attacked and that is more likely by the Iron Age Celts.

So this 'ancient' trackway is not Neolithic or Bronze Age, its Iron Age and certainly not connecting Ireland to Wessex, for if your carrying the weight of Copper, Bronze and Gold ore from Ireland, you would use a boat to the closest point to your destination.

Yet another Welsh fairytale busted.

A Greater Skeptic

chris johnson said...

Dare I say this? i think you are wrong. There has been proper archaeology done and a lot of mesolithic and neolithic finds. The axe factory evidence is based on finding a lot of axes in various states. A henge is reported too. This has nothing to do (I think) with finding "Prescelli" axes in other places - they were found locally.

If you push me I might just pay 30 quid to confirm or we can visit the farmer. Not so sure about the 30 quid because I just ordered Toulson's book. On the other hand at this time of year stuff should be easy to find if it is indeed as rich as reported and if the farmers lets us walk around,.

By the sound of it you did not talk to people around Pentre Galar and please forgive me when I am wrong?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Mr Skeptic

For goodness sake, do some homework. Along the Preseli summit ridge there are burial mounds (presumably Bronze Age) at Foel Eryr, Foelcwmcerwyn, Foelfeddau (the name means "bare hill of graves", Carn Bica and Foeldrygarn 0-- and there may be others. They are not all shown on the OS map, but that dos not mean they they aren't there.

Clegyr Boia was a small settlement on a craggy rock near St David's -- and the (Bronze Age?) settlements on the Carningli upland comprise a multitude of features including field clearance cairns, field walls, trackways, round-houses, enclosures etc. All carefully documented and mapped. Yes, you need water for crops. Ever heard of springs and streams?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- I used to go to Glyn y Fran a lot in the old days -- a good friend lived there.

As I recall, the latest research does NOT locate an axe factory -- I remember reports when it was published. Some people assume that there are 3 axe factories in the area, since there are 3 main types of "Preseli" rock represented in the axe collections -- but I fear that this is ALL pure speculation. I have never seen any convincing evidence for intensive axe production at a particular site.

chris johnson said...

Thanks Brian. They said there was nothing to see above ground but I reckon you would have noticed. I might go anyway to satisfy curiosity.

BRIAN JOHN said...


This might help:

"The area is rich in recorded archaeology, almost exclusively of prehistoric date. There is a mesolithic/neolithic findspot, and a neolithic stone-axe factory. However, it is neolithic/bronze age ritual features that predominate, including a possible henge, a possible ring barrow and a ring ditch, several soilmarks and a cremation, which form a complex around the axe-factory in the centre of the area. To the north of this concentration are one definite and two possible round barrows, a scheduled stone pair, a possible burnt mound, and prehistoric and Roman findspots."

Actually this is a "worked stone scatter" or "findspot" --- small scale and opportunistic working of erratics -- not working at an outcrop. (Catalogue of Mesolithic and Neolithic Collections in the Nat Museums and galleries of Wales" (2003).

I suppose one might find something by field-walking, in fields that have been freshly ploughed or harrowed.