Fort Fantastic: Y Garn Goch, one of Britain’s biggest prehistoric sites (and a circular hike around the area)

Walk length: 6km.

When people ask us about the loveliest parts of the Brecon Beacons they are often surprised when we cite spots on its fringes, far from its highest or wildest points. The fringes of this pale green rock-pockmarked moorland provide what we believe is the perfect picturesque landscape blend between upland and valley, countryside and civilisation. Y Garn Goch is such a place. It is also one of Britain’s biggest known ancient sites, yet ‘known’ is a relative term. Embedded into a twist of quiet rural lanes and trackways, it has to be one of the least-visited sites of such scale and historical significance anywhere in Wales and, with no detailed archaeological dig ever carried out, one of the most enigmatic. So of course it was not hard to entice us to come out here and, we hope, will not be too difficult convincing you that this is one of the Brecon Beacons’ most interesting destinations, enveloped as it is in some of Southern Wales’ most superb hiking country.

Truth be told, Y Garn Goch was one of the places that inspired us to move to this part of Wales when we chanced upon it on a road trip back in 2015. Something about the way these teensy corkscrewing country lanes hereabouts all connect, hanging prettily off the mountainsides and treating the traveller to such superlative views as they do so captured our imaginations… and perhaps you can see why…

© Luke Waterson

The path up from the car park is one of those quintessentially dashing Brecon Beacons paths: grassily unfurling up through the ferns and bracken first to the smaller of the two main fortifications on this site, Y Gaer Fach, and then down and up again to the larger and much more impressive, Y Gaer Fawr.

One element that strikes you as you roam about, aside from the exquisite views down into the sleepy chartreuse farmland of the Tywi Valley, is just how much stone remains at this hill fort. There are vast mounds of the stuff: far more than at other more-famous sites like Maiden Castle in Dorset. The instinct is to assume these to be defensive walls, as they are laid out dramatically around the edges of the site’s inner sanctum, at points far above head height and several metres thick, but compelling theories suggest this was actually to delineate a sacred space that would have once been visited on the prehistoric equivalent of a pilgrimage, by thousands of people annually. Another thing of interest is the scale and size: you will need 15 minutes just to walk to Y Gaer Fach, almost 30 to reach Y Gaer Fawr and a good hour to fully explore the common land over which Y Garn Goch presides. Overall, it is only a smidgeon smaller than Maiden Castle, which is Britain’s and one of Europe’s largest hill forts! (Show our Neolithic forebears some respect, though, and do not clamber on the stony mounds away from the defined routes).

It is not just the hill forts themselves to see here. The intrigue is in the surprisingly extensive overall scope of what remains, contrasted with many other hill forts. The might of the rock-piled site perimeters thrust out of the ancient past at you, forcing you to contemplate exactly what happened here millennia ago. It is easier, in your minds eye, to juxtapose the people that might have once called this home upon the scene that at most other prehistoric sites we have seen. Each stone, you think, could have had an essential purpose here. We spy what seems to be a line of sunken rocks reminiscent of stone rows we have visited on Dartmoor, close to the top of Y Gaer Fawr, making us immediately wonder whether this could have once formed part of a ritual processional avenue. The sad thing (although admittedly the thing that simultaneously keeps the tourists away) is that, with Y Garn Goch lacking the excavation it deserves, much about what happened here will only ever be conjecture.

Y Gaer Fawr from Y Gaer Fach… ©Luke Waterson
The top of Y Garn Goch with the Tywi Valley behind © Luke Waterson

The Y Garn Goch Hike

The path up to the topmost rubbly mound is distinctly indented through the moorland scrub, as the picture above shows, but to continue on this hike (rather than return to the car park) you need to follow the fainter path descending to the right of the stones. Looking closely at the way to the east (it helps to bring a compass with you on any hike, of course, and especially at the beginning of this one), you will spy a further outcrop of stone, reachable via a faint path through the bracken. From here, you will descry a view something like this…

© Luke Waterson

See what we mean about Y Garn Goch’s mighty stone boundaries?!

In any case, the path descends northeast to exit the stone perimeter of the hill fort, heading for the thin band of woodland below, then once outside, curves southeast to meet a metalled lane, at a junction with a track to the farm of Tan-y-lan. Bearing right on the lane you arrive at a gate onto the property of Garn-wen.

Through the gate, you will notice the sign for the Cambrian Way long-distance path connecting Cardiff and Conwy across the entire mountain belt of Wales. Hearteningly, this means the next section of the hike is well-marked, as a signpost a short distance after the gate evidences, where a path bears left of the main driveway to skirt Garn-wen and deliver you back on the track up the mountainside afterwards. You now rise on one of Britain’s glorious ancient by-ways: a hedged sunken track steadily climbing to reveal, roll by roll, a splendid northern flank of Brecon Beacons upland. You pass a ruined barn to hit the first of two cross-tracks, where a gate and a stile shaded by a venerable old tree deliver you onto the better-defined track that keeps climbing slightly to the right (southwest) in a winsome scene resembling something like this:

© Luke Waterson

Then it is all bedazzlements of grass-, fern- and heather-clad opening moor and sporadic gnarled trees as you climb the flanks of the hill of Pen y Bicws (415m), also flanked with a cairn. The views in such cherished moments of sunny morning as we were lucky enough to get blur beautifully in the pastille-pale way only the Brecon Beacons can, soaring to the distant valleys, with good aerial overviews of Y Garn Goch behind.

© Luke Waterson

At the next sign-posted path junction, you turn right (still on the Cambrian and Brecon Beacons Ways) off the main track on a narrow path that leads across a boardwalk to a stile, a large patch of woodland, Carreglwyd, ahead. Hang a right over the stile but then at the next field fence (pictured) bear along the fenceline embankment (not following the OS map path-line which is inaccurately marked and cuts across too low) to reach the wood at the other end by an opening in a half-tumbled-down dry-stone wall. (Pictured below is the fenceline embankment path looking back from the wood edge towards Pen y Bicws)

Behind the wall, the path gently slopes to the right to enter the Carreglwyd woodland. Next up: an overgrown section follows (we were jogging this route but found the next bit challenging enough just to walk through!). The path, however, is clear enough and after a while dives to the right, steeply plunging to a broader woodland track at a signposted junction. Here the Cambrian Way branches left and your route to the right, hopping over the adjacent metal gate into a field. Do not cross this field! Rather, swing left after the gate to reach an opening hidden down in the field corner. The route will ultimately be hugging the side of the woodland, but first you need to negotiate a fallen tree, via a beaten path rejoining the field some way down.

© Luke Waterson

The next and final section traces the edge of the woodland on the above murky, mystery-steeped path. Where the trees fall back to the left, it proceeds across a couple of fields reminiscent of stately home parkland, before dropping to a reed-stippled third field. Cross this diagonally to a hedge partially dividing this from another reed-covered field, and continue straight ahead to an unmarked gate. Now with a stream in a deep gully on your left continue forwards until, over the brow of the hill, a house roof appears. Aiming to the left of the house and, of course, to the right of the stream gully, descend the field to a gate onto a lane. Turn right on the lane, and follow this, first of all straight, then sharply to the left at the point where a track goes straight ahead, then along up to another lane junction and, sticking on the same lane, bend to the right and down to the entrance to Y Garn Goch.

A Little Hill Fort History (or the lack of it!)

As far as hard historic facts are concerned, Y Garn Goch provides few answers. Perhaps this explains why it is the sleeping giant of Brecon Beacons tourist attractions. Even the interpretive placard at Garn Goch’s car park is highly speculative, imagining what it may have been 2000 years ago when the Romans arrived in the valley and focussing on the fort’s Iron Age past when in fact other evidence suggests the hill fort is far older – 5800 years old, in fact, and thus Neolithic (in the only and incredibly vague analysis of the site, historian AHA Hogg, a specialist on Welsh Iron Age hill forts and then at the end of his career, was asked to survey the remains, and declared it Iron Age, upon which basis the information board was presumably produced). Yet even Hogg admitted there was certain things he could not explain about the site if it was an Iron Age construction… This useful site provides far more on the history of Y Garn Goch.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the hill fort parking it is ten miles southwest to the embattled ruins of Dryslwyn Castle, one of the greatest surviving Welsh-built fortress

At a glance

How to get there: Llangadog is a sizeable village half-way between the market towns of Llandovery and Llandeilo on the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons. From the roundabout on the A40 head up into Llangadog village centre on the A4069, which at a left-hand bend does not follow the main road around but branches off right. Keep on the A4069 as it leaves the village to spot a brown sign to Y Garn Goch to the right over some common land. Follow this lane over the river and around to the left, passing through the houses of Felindre before the lane then winds along to the little settlement of Bethlehem. In Bethlehem, at the crossroads in the village, take the left-hand turn (if coming from Llangadog) then immediately turn right on a little lane that ascends the hill until a turning signed as a dead end. Take this, and the hill fort parking is straight over a cattle grid on the left.

Parking: Several parking spots at the beginning of a dead-end turn-off from the lane up from Bethlehem (yes, that really is the name of the nearest village)

Refreshments: Down in Llangadog, four miles north, is a trio of great pubs and a cracking cafe, the Garden Cafe, by the garden centre.

Best time to visit: A bright sunny day as it was when we were roaming up here is SO much more appealing, because you see the views and the lack of shelter on top of the hill fort doesn’t matter.