Sarn Helen circular

Walk of the month with Ian Bateman

The path leading to the site of an old quarry Camau Gwynion

Ian’s last walk for 2021 follows in the foot-steps of legions of Roman centurions and starts in waterfall country at Ystradfellte. It is one to blow the Christmas cobwebs away, but, be warned it can be a bit wild and windy at the top, so go prepared for the weather.

I spent a thoroughly enjoyable weekend recently at the Swansea Fringe Festival, which promised to deliver ‘the best in art, music, comedy, spoken word and more that Swansea has to offer!’ And boy, it delivered in spades. What an absolutely fantastic event. Organised by a team of dedicated volunteers, the 6-year old festival returned after a year’s Covid enforced hiatus, running from Thursday to Sunday with 30 venues all over the city hosting dozens of events to please most tastes.

My particular preference is music and armed with my weekend pass wristband, I spent the 4 days flitting between the Bunkhouse, Elysium Bar, Crowley’s Rock Bar, Copr Bar and Sin City cramming as much in as I possibly could. The amount of young original talent out there is quite remarkable.

Taking nothing away from all the cover bands on the city circuit, these boys and girls write and perform all their own original material and although I didn’t recognise a single song all weekend it didn’t matter a jot. It was a joyous and fabulous experience. The excitement and vibrancy in the performances and sheer raw talent in the song writing and musicianship was astonishing. I could only imagine what it must have been like if you were witness to the early days of the Who, Rolling Stones and the Beatles in similar small venues.

Performances that stood out were Trampolene , fronted by the charismatic Swansea boy Jack Jones, who have flirted with fame in recent years (helped in no small measure by being championed by Pete Doherty of Babyshambles fame and also by Pete Paphides the eminent rock journalist), Bandicoot, an up and coming raucous and energetic outfit , The Keys, All Dead, All Dead and some fine Welsh language acts in SYBS and Eleri Angahrad . Top of the bill on Saturday in Sin City, however, were local legends and godfathers of the Swansea rock scene, Man. They’ve been around for so long that the first time I saw them in the Top Rank, they were supported by Badfinger and Harold Wilson was Prime Minister! Sadly, only one original member is still with the band, the phenomenon that is Martin Ace, and whilst the audience was a little thin on the ground , maybe an indication that they’ve had their day, their set of songs satisfied all the oldies present but I guess that judging by the talent on show that weekend they can take some solace from the fact that the baton has been safely passed to the new generation.

Special mention however, must go to my favourite act of the entire weekend, Lost Tuesday Society.  If you like your acts dripping in psychedelic dreaminess with four-part harmonies impeccably performed by the love children of Fairport Convention & Jethro Tull, then this talented outfit will be right up your perfumed and patchouli oil drenched street. Check them out man!!!

Now I realise by banging on about the festival, I’ve set myself the unenviable task of trying to find a way of segueing that into what should be the main topic of this column which of course is the monthly walk. But quite frankly it has beaten me so let’s jump straight in.

This month we’re going to follow in the footsteps of Roman legions by taking in a section of the ancient Roman military road known as Sarn Helen. It’s not too far away you’ll be pleased to learn, starting in the village of Ystradfellte in waterfall country high up in the Neath Valley and whilst not having the ‘wow’ factor it is still an interesting little ramble.

Named after Saint Elen, of whom little is known, this 160-mile circuitous route stretches from Aberconwy in the north to Carmarthen in the south west with this particular section running between Neath and Brecon.

I have to admit, I’ve not done much walking recently. Maybe I’ve sunk into a post Covid state of lethargy, the complete opposite of what you’d expect after being forced indoors for long periods of time during lockdown. But what this walk served to remind me is there’s no substitute for get

top down left to right: Car Park at Ystradfellte / New Inn pub / Through the gate straight ahead / Looking back at the village / Following the path through some trees / The view opens out where it heads for a dry valley

ting up off your backside and out into the open to breathe in that invigorating fresh country air and appreciating the natural beauty that surrounds us. When you’re feeling a little demotivated and the pressures of modern life are bearing down on you, then in my book, there’s no better psychological balm than a good old walk in the country.

Arriving at Ystradfellte then, park in the car park by the New Inn and head up the lane beside the pub and opposite the church. It’s a steady climb which initially starts off as a road then turns into a track once through the gate straight ahead of you. As you reach the top, the path levels off and once through another gate you emerge onto open countryside. One word of warning, as it’s a little bit exposed on the higher ground it can get a bit windy and chilly up here, but perfect if you’re looking to blow away those post Xmas cobwebs. Once through the gate then, there’s a dry-stone wall to your right. Where the wall veers sharply right, head straight on but slightly left, picking out a path which is just about visible. Once you come to the trees ahead the path swings right where it descends and heads towards a dry valley in the near distance, which is the site of old quarry workings at Carnau Gwynion. On the approach, the views now open out all around with the two peaks of Fan Nedd to the left and Fan Llia to the right particularly prominent. The path takes you through the old quarry workings where the exposed limestone is very evident all around and you pass an old abandoned limekiln.

Approaching the site of the old quarry works of Camau Gwynion, just visable on the far right is an abandoned limekiln. Look out for the peaks of Fan Nedd and Fan Llia.

Limestone has been quarried and burnt in limekilns in the Beacons since medieval times. It was used to make lime mortar for use in construction and to neutralise acid in the soils to promote crop growth. It never ceases to amaze me how this was ever discovered. Who on earth would have come up with the idea that burning solid rock and spreading the resultant powder over the land would help your crops to grow? Ingenious! It was also used in the copper smelting industry and the availability of locally sourced limestone from around this area contributed to Swansea becoming a world centre.

top down: The gate between two dry stone walls / Continue on the path between the stone walls / The path joins the main road / Past the turning for the car park

top down: The view of the valley below as you follow the road / The sharp left turn leaving the road / Up the sharp left turn which eventually leads to a gravel pathway and the Roman road

Through the quarry, you come to a gate and ahead and below you is a well-defined path between two dry stone walls. Go through another gate and the path veers left until eventually you come to the main road. Go left along the road, taking great care as you do so and just after the turning to the car park below in the valley to the right and before a cattle grid, take the track sharp left which now leads you onto Sarn Helen itself.

Now, I’ve read that sections of the typical Roman road are still visible along its route, but I don’t know whether I wasn’t paying attention or my untutored eye didn’t know what it was looking for, but I’ll be honest and say I didn’t recognise anything obvious.  You know, like you find in Pompeii and all that. However, I guess the point is that you are walking in the footsteps of Roman soldiers from nearly 2000 years ago.

The standing stone Maen Madoc






The valley in sunlight

The Roman road of Sarn Helen / The first bridge that you’ll take over the river Nedd

What is undoubtedly recognisable, however, is the 2.7m high standing stone which soon comes into sight on your left, Maen Madoc. Whilst it’s not certain who Madoc was, the inscription carved on the stone whilst severely weathered is just about legible and says ‘DERVAC(IVS) FILIVS IVSTI (H)IC IACIT – “Of Dervacus, Son of Justus. He lies here“. Bless him. All the way from Rome, only to die in Glynneath. Cruel. However, no human remains have ever been found on the site. The path continues in typical Roman road fashion – straight as a die – until it begins to descend zig zagging down towards a bridge over river and then uphill again on the other side. When you reach the top of the hill, look out for a 3-way direction post and go sharp left signposted Blaen Nedd Isaf, which is a farm nestling in the valley below.

top down: Wonderful views of the Brecon Mountain peaks / Top of the hill 3-way direction post / The 2nd bridge over the river next to the farm Blaen Nedd Isaf / The gate that enters open moorland / Gate sign warning of Bull in field

Follow the descending path to the valley floor where you’ll come to a bridge which crosses the river Nedd. Be careful as it’s quite steep and slippery here. Over the bridge and right into a field, which you exit through a stile on your left, just as it begins to narrow after about 120 yards. Up some steps, over another stile and onto the access road to the farm you’ve just passed. Turn right along here for a 100-yards or so and rejoin the path over a stile to your left and into a field, exiting through the gate opposite. Through another gate where the path winds upwards through a copse and reaching yet another gate which accesses open moorland. Carry on bearing slightly to the right until you come to another gate and head for yet another one in the near distance to the right of the limestone crag ahead and to the left of you. Once through here there’ll be a choice of two paths, one obvious one to the right and one at 1 o’clock. Take either as they end up in the same place just over the ridge. Once you reach here, the view opens up and look out for a gate with a warning of a bull (he wasn’t around on the day I did this but be careful just in case) and pick out the path that winds its way over, what is now, typical limestone country again.

As the mist falls, the path leads through barren and rocky moorland until it reaches a dry stone wall

The landscape literally changes under your feet as the underlying geology dictate the nature of the ground on the surface – from lush and green farmland to barren and rocky moorland. You may remember that limestone keeps popping up around South Wales, noticeably on the south coast of the Gower. But when it occurs inland, the landscape is characterized by sparse and treeless open tracts of land, agriculturally useful only for grazing, with occasional bare exposed sections of rock and more noticeably large hollows in the surface of the ground known as sink holes. Limestone is easily eroded by the chemical reaction between rainwater and the rock and leads to the formation of vast subterranean cave systems such as those found at Dan yr Ogof and Ffynon Du. Downward pressure onto the caverns below ground causes the surface level literally to sink and create these hollows and there are some impressive examples of these around here.

The path can become a little indistinct along here but head just to the left of the green field you can see in the middle distance which is easily recognisable against the surrounding barren moorland. Once you cross the moor and reach higher ground you’ll eventually see the dry-stone wall and gateway ahead that you encountered close to the start of the walk, which then leads you back to Ystradfellte.

So, there you go. Not too long a walk, and not too far from home either. I’m conscious that you’ll be reading this in December and traditionally there should be some sort of link with Christmas, so I’m relying on a very tenuous connection between the nativity and the Romans as justification. It’s the best I can do I’m afraid! Merry Christmas everyone!!

Start & finish: Car park in Ystradfellte

Map: OL12

Refreshments: Pub in village and pubs and cafe in Pontneathvaughan

Distance: 6 miles

Grade: Moderate

Dogs and children: Yes, but dogs on leads

Mudometer: 4.5



Super Furry Animals: Sarn Helen

The Clash: I Fought the Law and the Law Won

Crowded House: Weather with You

Roman Holliday: Don’t Try to Stop It

Monty Python: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Lost Tuesday Society: Lights

Trampolene: Perfect View

Man: Romain

Eleri Angharad: Earthbound

Bandicoot: Dark Too Long

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