Discover prehistoric ruins on a hike through Pembrokeshire's Preseli Hills

In northern Pembrokeshire, the bleakly beautiful Preseli Hills provide a thrilling insight into prehistoric civilisations and the runic messages they left behind.

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

“You have to be careful,” warns Phil Wheeler, host at Preseli Hills Cottages, as we huddle over mugs of tea and an OS map tracing the route of the Golden Road, a seven-mile ramble along the spine of the hills. “I was up there the other day and I couldn’t see further ahead than this in the fog,” he says, his hand a few inches in front of his face. “Lots of the landscape features look alike, which can make navigation tricky. But there’s a special atmosphere up there. You feel things.” As an ex-military mountain guide and a competitor in the Preseli Beast fell-running race, he’s not a man to exaggerate. 

The next morning dawns grey and sunless. A red kite whistles as it circles above the tawny, heather-blackened moor, casting a lonely shadow as I pick my way from the trailhead to Foel Eryr (‘eagle’s peak’). The second-highest peak in the Preseli Hills at 468 metres, its modest summit is topped by a Bronze Age burial cairn. When it’s clear, you can see for miles — but today drizzle has blotted out the view entirely.

The spectral mist seems almost suited to the Preseli Hills. Tors litter the landscape like long-buried dragons. And the crags appear less like hills and more like the ghosts of them — vanishing, reappearing, suddenly creeping up. All is silent but for the wind howling around the ragged heights and my own muffled curse as I step into a bog. There’s nobody else here but I have the eerie sense of being watched.

Far from GPS signals, light pollution and other reminders of the century we live in, these sweeping hills and moors have remained largely untouched since our ancient ancestors left their mark thousands of years ago. Even the most ordinary-looking crag might reveal, on closer inspection, a Neolithic stone circle, dolmen, Iron Age hillfort or standing stone. There are more dramatic places in Wales, but nowhere touches prehistorically deeper than the Preseli Hills.

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park archaeologist Tomos Jones agrees. “The Preseli Hills are largely undeveloped in the context of recent times and as such they are a window into people from a distant past,” he says, when I speak to him later. “They show us how the landscape was arranged and settlements organised, what type of monuments were constructed, the relationships between people and how they utilised spaces and resources. This is a tranquil place. You can still feel solitude here, even on a busy day.”

Tranquil is putting it mildly. The hills feel utterly forgotten on my walk. I lose the trail as the mist closes in like a scene from a gothic horror movie. There’s a rock resembling a prostrating man in prayer, another like the skeleton of a stegosaurus, one that’s like the horned devil himself.

You need a vivid imagination to picture the sometimes easily missed Golden Road as the superhighway it once was — said to have been used by Romans transporting gold from Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains to southern England, early Celtic saints and pilgrims en route to St Davids, and Welsh cattle drovers making their way to market in London. Archaeological evidence suggests the path has an older footprint still, and may have been used 5,000 years ago to cart off precious bluestones by sledge to Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, 140 miles away.

It’s probable, certainly, as all things are in a region swirling so intensely in myth. I manage to locate Foel Cwmcerwyn, the highest point in the Preselis at 536 metres. In the Welsh epic The Mabinogion, the valley below is where King Arthur battled Twrch Trwyth, an enchanted wild boar from Ireland. Nearby, the razorback tor of Carn Bica presides over Bedd Arthur (the grave of Arthur), an unusual oval-shaped ring of stones said to be the final resting place of King Arthur and his knights.

Clouds blanket the surrounding summits as I approach the rocky tors at Carn Menyn, cited as the possible origin of the spotted dolerite (Preseli bluestone) that appears in the inner circle at Stonehenge. It’s wet, muddy and pretty miserable. I can’t see much beyond the rocks in front of me, but who cares? I’ve reached one of the most important ancient sites in Britain and there isn’t another soul in sight. The slabs and pillars pulse with mysteries of the past. If they could speak, what stories would they tell? Or perhaps sing? For it’s here that researchers have discovered ‘singing stones’, bluestones that chime, twang or ring when struck — just like those at Stonehenge.

At Foel Drygarn, I sit on a lichened rock below one of the most impressive Iron Age hillforts in Wales, its stark, conical summit topped with three Bronze Age burial cairns. Dark skies are sweeping in from the coast, but suddenly the clouds part and crepuscular rays beam down. For a brief moment, the road across the moors is golden — the way lit partially by a rainbow. 

Published in the UK & Ireland supplement, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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