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Clwydian Range: If these old hills could talk

Clwydian Range
Looking toward Moel Famau and the Clwydian Range from Bodfari

Erin Robinson
By Erin Robinson
The Clwydian Range heather and hillforts interpretation officer explains that the hills are still giving up their secrets

You really can see little bits of evidence for the history of the whole world in them there hills. You can quite often see fossils in the walls that are made from local stone, relating to a time when the area was covered by a huge tropical ocean.

Derek Brockway is given a tour of Moel Famau by Erin Robinson

We have found worked flint remains in ancient caves dating back to 38,000 BC. These caves also reveal that we once had mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, hyenas, elk, wolves and cave lions roaming the hills.

Then fast forward to the Ice Age and you will see the rounded hills and little valleys and quite often come across a huge boulder in the middle of nowhere that was dumped there by the ice as it melted 17,000 years ago. We also boast Britain's second largest man-made prehistoric mound, Gop Hill, at Trelawnyd.

The Bronze Age left lots of monuments for us to find here in the form of burial mounds, which almost litter the hills of the Clwydian Range. We have to put ourselves in the mindset of those people; Imagine feeling like you would today at a funeral, walking slowly up the hill to lay a dear one to rest in their favourite place, among the hills overlooking the valley where they possibly lived.

Moel Arthur
Hillfort markings around the summit of Moel Arthur

My favourite clues to the history of the hills are possibly the most intrusive - or certainly would have been when they were built. The Clwydian Range boasts a huge collection of Iron Age hillforts, dating back over 2000 years ago, or some possibly further back to the Bronze Age. There are so many of them it could possibly be the highest concentration of hillforts in Britain.

The Heather and Hillforts Project currently look after six hillforts, four of which are in the range, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

Building these huge monuments would have been a huge task to undertake, with complex defences, huge amounts of soil being dug up to from the ditches and then made into great banks making it harder for people to invade. Or was this simply ostentatious behaviour? My hillfort is bigger than yours!

They would have stuck out as massive features in the landscape - you can still make out these features today, after 2000 years of erosion.

Perhaps this was the point - could these have been places that were meant to be seen, either for showing off power and status, or because they were to be beacons for people, attracting people to markets, celebrations, places of worship?

Sometimes they can be blustery, bleak places, but if you are walking up there today just nestle yourself in a rampart and feel the wind disappear and get warm again. Perhaps you can imagine yourself within a roundhouse.

The walls were thick, the roof reaching almost to the floor so the raindrops didn't penetrate the walls, the fire in the centre providing light, warmth and the ability to cook your daily meals and heat your water. Snuggled inside one of the houses in the hillforts, with a view across many miles, must have felt like a retreat.

Vale of Clwyd
The view over the Vale of Clwyd from Penycloddiau

We have been excavating on Penycloddiau hillfort. There is a possible Bronze Age burial mound at the summit, so we are excavating to make 100 per cent sure it is what we think it is - 4,500 years old.

From the Stone Age onwards, people were beginning to farm. They began this by burning and cutting little clearings in the forest that covered the hills, to encourage animals to congregate and make it easier for the humans to find them.

As the landscape became more and more 'farmed', the soils wore down and became more acidic and the heather moorland began to come into existence.

Heather moorland looks quite wild and natural, but it actually needs to be managed by humans (and agriculture) otherwise it will die away and revert to the woodland it once was. The heather moorland is internationally important and when you take into account that half of the world's heather moorland is located in the UK, you can appreciate what a loss that would be.

The heather is managed by cutting and burning patches of the moorland and by grazing sheep on the mountain. We also burn the heather - the heat and smoke makes the seeds pop and therefore germinate. These strips of burnt and cut heather help us as fire breaks, in the case of wild fire and also for burning into with a controlled fire

Heather management
Managing the heather - by cutting interesting shapes

These strips also help sheep move around the moorland as heather can be quite dense as it gets older and they only have little legs! The sheep are put on to the moorland in the summer to rest the fields in the valley - this is probably a practice that dates back to the Iron Age too.

These strips also act as an arena for the male black grouse as he displays to attract the females. Positive management of the Clwydian Range has seen numbers of the black grouse increase from just a handful of males in the early 1990s to 16 counted in 2008.

We have a long and interesting history on the range with boundaries, the enclosure act and common land, where farmers now have common rights to share parts of the mountain where they graze their sheep.

And, of course, the mining history on the range is still evident, with small quarries along the hills, including excitement surrounding the short-lived 'Cilcain Gold Rush', where a nugget of gold was apparently found at Moel Arthur hillfort quarry. No more was ever discovered though.

Another great story coming to light is about young pioneering women geologists at the turn of the last century. They were sent to the Clwydian Range to look for graptolites - as it was 'delicate and precise work, most suited to women'!

Although their work was hidden in storage for many years, it has been rediscovered. Their diaries are a fascinating read, delving into Welsh life, describing their adventures and their experiences.

Also, we've launched the Moel Famau Audio Heritage Trail which you can access through your mobile phone at local call cost or download the MP3s for free at www.heatherandhillforts.co.uk .

The history here is immense and I have only touched on the stories that the hills hold and the secrets that are still being discovered to this day.

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17 Jul 09 |  Arts & Culture
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01 Jun 09 |  Nature & Outdoors
Iron Age hillforts
20 Jul 09 |  History


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