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19 December 2014
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Pontymister and Mynydd Machen to Bedwas

From the old bridge in Pontymister, you might think that the old pilgrimage route would go steeply uphill to cross the ridge and cut across the southern slope of Mynydd Machen. There are two farms on the way up called Heol Ddu and Heol Las, ‘the black road’ and ‘the green road’, and at the top is a farm called Llan-Danglws, ‘the church of St Tanglwst’.

Unfortunately, there is no obvious route along the southern slope of Mynydd Machen. The modern road goes along the valley bottom, but this would have been marshy and overgrown in the Middle Ages. The old road goes up the north side of the mountain - a lane, metalled in places, which climbs slowly to cross the ridge near Bedwas. The more energetic pilgrims might have gone straight uphill past Heol Ddu and Heol Las to visit the chapel then gone on along the ridge to the west. This is a roughly surfaced road which becomes a path up to the summit of Mynydd Machen. It would make a good walk, though no medieval pilgrim would have bothered with the final climb.

Most medieval pilgrims would probably have gone for the easier route which slopes up the north side of the mountain. On the road leading from Pontymister to Heol Ddu and Heol Las, take the road to the right marked Ochrwyth. This road goes downhill past an old chapel, then uphill again and becomes a track which slopes up the side of the mountain past some old mine workings. It was probably a tramway to the quarry above. The stone here is dolomitic limestone, which was used in the iron industry. It has veins of argentiferous lead in it, and quarrying has exposed old lead workings. Some of these may have been Roman. There was a Roman mining station in the valley below you: its bath-house was discovered during building work at Risca Church. Another mining settlement was on the other side of the mountain, at Lower Machen.

When the track emerges from the woods, you can take the roughly metalled road which slopes down to the right and skirts the mountain to the north. This is probably the old route and is the best wet-weather alternative. In fine weather, you can go straight on and climb the steep and stony track ahead of you to the summit of Mynydd Machen. (For the Rhymney Vally Ridgeway, turn left before the summit. The path into the forest is not exactly as marked on the OS 1:25,000: the stile is at the sharp angle at the top of the forest.)

The summit of Mynydd Machen has a television transmission mast, a trig point and a Bronze Age burial mound. The mound is one of a line stretching for several miles along the ridge, so the route along the ridge is probably prehistoric. From the mast on the summit a stony track leads down to the north-west. Under the heather and whinberries to your left are the foundations of a number of medieval platform houses, built by peasant farmers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the weather was better than it is now and crops could be grown on the mountains. Follow the track around the forest edge then keep to the ridge north of the coal tip and down through the forest.

The track over the ridge eventually goes steeply downhill and briefly rejoins the metalled road at 203 904. From the road, take the track up to the left and climb steadily to cross the ridge before the next forestry plantation. There are a number of eroded trackways crossing the ridge here, the result of motorcycle scrambling. On the skyline are two Bronze Age burial mounds, Twyn yr Oerfel East and Twyn yr Oerfel West. The easterly one has a small enclosure around its entrance. Were rituals for the dead celebrated here?

Cross the ridge at the lowest point and keep straight on up the track through the coal tips. On the far side of the tip, take the track which leads to the right to skirt the southern slope of Mynydd y Grug, ‘the Heather Mountain’. The track follows the hedge at the top of the fields and is hollowed in places.

Take the first left and keep to the edge of the fields, down past an old barn and up the slope at the other side. (You can avoid the down-and-up by staying on the main track and taking the second left, which skirts the little valley.) Turn left down the old Bedwas road, which begins as a stony track and eventually becomes a metalled road. When you enter Bedwas, cut off the angle in the road by going through some bollards and keep straight on to the church.

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