Monthly Archives: February 2016

22/02/2016: Rudbaxton Rath and St Leonard’s Well

In lieu of a full diary update (which would at this time mainly feature illnesses and rain) here’s a photo-blog account of our visit to Rudbaxton Rath and St Leonard’s Well, near Crundale.

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“Rath” is apparently an Irish word, commonly used for forts and earthworks across Pembrokeshire.

The access to the rath is via a small and unremarkable lay-by opposite the driveway to either Big Rathe or Little Rathe (I forget which), which I assume is a farm. Possibly the farm that owns this rath, and possibly named after it. There is no sign for the rath, although it is a scheduled ancient monument. The public footpath sign remains here, which is something. Many of those I’ve explored in Pembrokeshire have either been deliberately removed or, which is more probable, damaged during hedge-trimming and never replaced by the council. This has happened just down the road from us since we moved here and nobody seems to care particularly. The bridge on the same public footpath has rotted away and was thick with brambles. It probably gets a couple of walkers a year. Rudbaxton Rath must at least attract some regular visits – from dog-walkers, history geeks, or teenagers looking for somewhere to drink cider.

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View from the field toward the lay-by.

The gateposts at the entrance to the field had nicely constructed stonework. Perhaps I should have photographed them, but I was more concerned with preventing my dog and children from being run over. People go by pretty fast, and there’s no parking area as such (let alone a gift shop). Fury took the walk slowly, but eventually caught up with us.

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View to the north.

It’s not especially high, but it’s a prominent bump in the immediate vicinity of the Rudbaxton/Crundale area, so as you climb the field along the fenced border you can see the masts at both Woodstock and Crymych to the north, as well as the peaks of the southernmost (and tallest) Preseli hills. Those that I recognise are Castlebythe (southwesternmost) and Cwmcerwyn (highest).

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This does not equal a gate.

What looked like a gate from the bottom of the field turned out to be just part of the fence, with a few horizontal stakes attached. I’m not sure if this is officially a viable thing to put over a public footpath (though I’ve seen far more blatant obstructions to rights of way on Pembrokeshire farms) but it made accessing the rath with two small children and a small dog a little bit tricky. If you have trouble climbing, this might be as far as you can go. It wouldn’t win any accessibility awards that’s for sure. And I tore a small hole in my jeans climbing over, as the back of the top horizontal stake is lined with barbed wire.

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Northwestern entrance to the rath.

The children were immediately impressed by the wooded earthworks, which was fortunate because I tend to find that can go either way. The banks of Rudbaxton Rath are impressively distinct though. It’s bigger than Scollock Rath (over the road from us) or Holgan Camp, which we visited just last week. The field at the top is relatively high and flat compared with the surrounding hill, which is naturally severe on the far side sloping down to what I assume is Cartlett Brook (whose source skirts Landskeria), and of course artificially exaggerated by the banks and ditches that encircle it.

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One of the rath’s wooded banks.

The rath has a page on Wikipedia (impressively) which notes – like the other sources I’ve read – that the rath is thought to have been used as a camp in the English Civil war. No visible stone fortifications remain, so presumably what is now a mature woodland was then a ring of stockades. The shape reminds me of numerous other iron age forts too though, and given the excellent defensive capability of such a location it seems very likely that medieval and later forts here were built on existing earthworks built by Iron Age folk. The modern antiquarian page is lacking at the moment (so much so I’m tempted to create an account). That website tends to be better populated when there’s mystical New Age-friendly prehistoiric stuff to look at. (Especially large stones.)

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The kids enjoyed climbing the outer wall; but the inner wall was a bit steep and brambly for them.

It’s amusing to note how the council were apparently planning to improve access to the site back in 2003 (according to the post on MA). Presumably whoever had that hope never quite managed to translate it into an actual plan of action. For such a lovely site to be borderline inaccessible and unsignposted is a real shame, but rather typical of the approach across the region. They’ll whack pictures of Pentre Ifan sunsets across the tourist literature, but when it comes to prioritising access to the many, many wonderful ancient monuments across Pembrokeshire there seems to be little enthusiasm.

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The top field. Presumably it’s used for grazing cows or sheep. (I’d guess cows.) But neither were in evidence.

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A view southeastwards to the far end of the camp’s inner circle.

The top part of the enclosure, being relatively flat and surrounded by trees, would make a lovely campsite. No idea what access is like (presumably there’s at least a way for tractors to get to it) and I’m sure it gets wet and windy at times, but it seems a shame for it to be more-or-less free from human activity when it’s been a people place for so many centuries.

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South along the outside of the fort.

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Walking clockwise around the banks of the rath.

We walked a short way around the rath to get a better sense of the place. I hadn’t brought my OS map, but I recalled that the green dotted line went all the way up, so even though we’d had to climb over a fence to get in, I was quite sure we were allowed to look around. I’m not completely sure why medieval monuments (especially castles, but also ruined abbeys, priories, etc.) are so much more treasured by our tourism and heritage industries. Perhaps it’s because of the certainty they offer by their association with verifiable historical records and relationships with continuing societal and political structures. The relative obscurity of sites like this (even when they do have an association with later historical records, which Rudbaxton Rath has) seems to be born as much from an intellectual embarrassment as from any kind of discernible policy decision.

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Kids, exploring.

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Pretty dense undergrowth; some of it must be impenetrable in summer.

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Hello, what’s this?

Upon rounding the ramparts a little we came across what looked like an entrance to hell. Quite an exciting thing to find in the banks of a rath, and very unusual in my experience. Closer inspection reminded me that the OS map had said there was a “well” up here, so this must be it. It’s a lovely little arched enclosure. No idea when it was built or whether it’s typical of wells of its kind. Coflein says it’s dry, but it certainly wasn’t after months of rain this winter.  They also say it’s post-medieval. Which would fit with the solitary fact(oid?) I know about medieval architecture: that rounded arches went out and pointed “gothic” once came in toward the end of the period.

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Is that a gothic arch?

The well was apparently part of a chapel that was in use in medieval times, and probably much later. Ruins remained until the mid-19th century, but now all that’s left is this little unlikely collection of bricks, built into the side of the rath.

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St Leonard’s Well. (How are you?)

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A little alcove bit. Possibly for putting statues of the Virgin Mary on. Possibly not.

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Preparing to offer a sacrifice.

I’ve no idea if you’re meant to throw money in this particular well, or whether that clearly pre-Christian habit is officially encouraged by the clergy nowadays. But I grew up near a holy well on Anglesey (St Seiriol’s) and there was always money in that – well, unless my older brother had been to it recently. That was protected by Cadw and had pretty decent access because it adjoined a medieval priory. Who knows what St Leonard’s chapel (as it was presumably called) did to upset everyone? Maybe it was built in an inconvenient location and its demise pre-dated the relatively modern interest in historical conservation.

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Throwing money into the well.

Anyway, we were taught to suspect most small enclosed bodies of water of being wishing wells, and to treat them as such. Sybil wished for a toy pony. Fury didn’t tell me what she wished for.

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Looking down from the top of the north bank.

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The inner circle, from the north bank.

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The rath has retained its shape very well. Presuming this was its original shape.

Unfortunately it’s true what was written on the MA site: just beyond the abandoned holy well is a ditch descending the north side of the rath, and somebody has decided to use it as their own personal landfill site. Whether it’s the farmer who acts as custodian of this land, or a neighbour taking advantage of their proximity to a rare patch of unmanaged and relatively invisible woodland, one cannot speculate. But it’s a state.

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Bin bags, plastic, paint tins, part of an old bed, an old trailer, etc.

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Everything is part of nature though, technically, isn’t it?

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And tyres. There are always tyres.

I found this quite upsetting. No doubt there are much more important things going on with a much more significant effect on the environment. And I suppose anything and everything humans do is by definition a part of the “natural” world. But at the same time I can’t help but think anybody who dumps a load of old rubbish on the side of an ancient earthwork by a disused holy well is a massive arse-hole.

Iron Age people dumped their rubbish where they liked. As did Medieval people. It wasn’t until very recently that semi-decent state-provided facilities started popping up around the place helping people recycle and dispose of unrecyclable rubbish in a societally approved fashion. We even have a small area in Eastern Landskeria (behind the woodshed in fact) where rubble and difficult building materials are stowed out of sight and out of mind. But that empty plastic paint carton looks pretty recently disposed with. And that could quite easily fit in a bin bag.

Of course there were a few old cans of cider strewn around too. I never did that, even when I was a lairy teenager and used to go drinking in such places. But I can see how it happens. This though? For such an enormous collection of junk to have built up in one place over the years suggests a prolonged abusive relationship somebody (possibly a few people, but entirely probably just one) has with their own local natural environment, and a disturbing sense of ownership and entitlement. Having lived in Wales for most of my life I know that a lot of people here either don’t know or simply don’t care about how beautiful the place they live in is, and how lucky they are to live in it. Or perhaps they’re just a very “vocal” minority, whose opinions are to be read clearly and regularly in the KFC packaging that’s strewn in the hedges that border our republic. (Impressive in a way, considering the nearest one I’m aware of is in Carmarthen.)

Should this come as a surprise? When sites as impressive as Rudbaxton Rath remain unsignposted, uncarparked, unlived-in, unloved, uncared-for, and rendered almost inaccessible by local land-management decisions, it probably follows that they are considered appropriate places for rubbish to be dumped.

EDIT: On reading A hiftory of Penbrokefhire by George Owen, Efq. of Henllys, Lord of Kemes (1603), I found that Owen mentions the Rath very briefly in a section subtitled: “Places not inhabited”. He mentioned “St. Leonard’s Rathe” as “an old fort on high ground.” So there we are. It was old news in Tudor times…