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Heather and Hillforts
The Clwydian hillforts condition survey

Heather & Hillforts, photo 84-MB-311 © CPAT

A programme of survey was undertaken by CPAT to record the condition of six hillforts in the Clwydian Hills and Llantysilio Mountain, namely Penycloddiau, Moel Arthur, Moel y Gaer Llanbedr, Foel Fenlli, Moel y Gaer Llantysilio and Caer Drewyn. The survey formed part of the Heather and Hillforts Project Planning Phase, which was grant aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Denbighshire County Council and Cadwyn Clwyd.

The condition survey provided a detailed assessment of the various management issues affecting each of the six hillforts within the study area, providing a baseline of information against which future changes can be assessed, as well as identifying those areas where immediate remedial action is required. In addition, for several of the hillforts the survey has resulted in the discovery of significant new evidence for occupation, in the form of roundhut platforms, which enables a better understanding of settlement patterns within the hillforts. This is particularly true of Penycloddiau, where up to 43 possible platforms were identified following a serious heather burn in 2003, and Foel Fenlli, where 40 platforms have recently been identified.

The condition of each of the hillforts, and the range of management issues affecting them, shows considerable variation within what is a very small study sample. Sites like Caer Drewyn, where grazing levels have been successfully managed, now have no significant issues affecting them. Even for the largest hillforts, Penycloddiau and Foel Fenlli, there are relatively few issues of major significance, and these largely relate to visitor pressure on particularly vulnerable areas and generally isolated sheep erosion around the ramparts. Ironically it is the smallest hillfort, Moel y Gaer, Llantysilio, which is subject to the most serious erosion and where there is the most urgent need for remedial action. This is, however, a unique circumstance where, because of the openness of the surrounding countryside, it has so far proved impossible to restrict unauthorised vehicular and motorcycle access which is continuing to have a serious impact on the hillfort.

Caer Drewyn

Caer Drewyn, photo 85-C-31 © CPAT

Caer Drewyn (PRN 100809; SAM Me 012 (Den)) occupies a strategic location above the Dee Valley to the north-east of Corwen (SJ 088444). The hillfort would appear to have two main phases of construction, the earliest comprising a small earthen enclosure on the summit of the hill, only the eastern part of which is now readily identifiable. The main hillfort is considerably larger, cutting across the earlier enclosure and extending downslope to the west, defended by impressive stone-revetted ramparts. There are two inturned entrances, the more impressive of which is located at the north-east corner, with a second, smaller entrance on the west side. A later small enclosure has been constructed on the east side of the hillfort, in the angle between the ramparts and the earlier enclosure embankment, within which one or two hut circles are visible. It is thought that this may be Romano British, or later, in date. There is also evidence for Medieval occupation inside the western entrance, where a long hut is clearly visible (PRN 100812). The main ramparts are pitted with numerous circular depressions, some of which contain dry-stone revetment, the function and date of which are uncertain. The hillfort has been subject to two excavations, by Rev H Pritchard in 1887 and W Gardner in 1922, both of which appear to have been largely limited to the clearance of rubble to expose sections of the ramparts, including the north-east entrance.

At present the site is used as sheep pasture, the vegetation being largely grass, but with bracken and gorse encroaching, particularly on the eastern side. The hillfort provides an excellent example of good management which in recent years has restricted the grazing, allowing past erosion scars to stabilise and heal. Although a number of management issues remain, all are of minor significance and largely relate to small areas of sheep scrapes, minor animal tracks and several areas of rabbit burrowing. The last affect small sections of the early enclosure bank, areas of the north-west ramparts and a larger area of the interior, but would appear to have a relatively minor impact on the archaeology. There are two walkers’ cairns on the north-east entrance, the larger of which has been removed in the past only to be reconstructed using material from the ramparts.

Foel Fenlli

Foel Fenlli, photo 84-C-277 © CPAT

Foel Fenlli (PRN 102310; SAM De 010) occupies a prominent site at the southern end of the Clwydian Range (SJ 163601). The highest point is at the eastern end, with the hillfort largely occupying ground which slopes to the west and falls steeply beyond on all but the east side. The defences are generally bivallate, with the most substantial banks and ditches on the more gently-sloping eastern side, and utilise the natural scarp in places, particularly on the south side where the outer bank gradually peters out. There is a single inturned entrance on the western side. A Bronze Age burial cairn occupies the summit of the hill (PRN 102313) and within the interior a number of roundhut platforms have been previously identified. The present survey has identified a total of 40 potential roundhut platforms, most of which were previously unrecognised, and further huts may have been located in the internal quarry ditch. Excavations were undertaken on the ramparts by Wynne Ffoulkes in 1849 which produced a number of artefacts including a stone knife, flint arrowheads and Roman pottery. In 1816 a hoard of over 1500 Roman coins (dating from 250 to 307 AD) was found on the inner north-eastern rampart.

The majority of the hillfort is presently covered by mature heather and bilberry and used as rough grazing for sheep. Foel Fenlli has seen considerable efforts to address a range of erosion issues in the past and many of these have proved to be successful, although several areas are now showing signs of recurrent activity, notably in relation to several former tracks across the northern ramparts. Despite the size of the hillfort only 40 management issues were identified, of which 29 were related to visitor activity and 11 to livestock. Of these, only four are considered to require urgent attention, all relating to the main visitor routes. The main northern approach in particular has a number of problems which require attention, as does the path through the southern ramparts. Two sections of the Offa’s Dyke footpath also require attention, in the hillfort entrance and on the south side. Elsewhere, the majority of management issues are of relatively minor significance, comprising narrow paths along the ramparts, sheep tracks across the ramparts and interior, and a number of sheep scrapes.

Moel Arthur

Moel Arthur, photo 84-C-275 © CPAT

Moel Arthur (PRN 102278; SAM Fl010) occupies the summit of a hill which descends steeply on all but the northern side, where the ground falls gradually to a shallow col (SJ 145660). Around the steeper sides the ramparts are simple, comprising a low bank and broad inner quarry ditch. On the northern side the ramparts are more impressive, consisting of a double bank and ditch, with an additional counterscarp bank near the inturned entrance on the north-east side. There are no clear indications of roundhut platforms within the interior and it seems most likely that huts were located on the relatively flat ground provided by the internal quarry ditch. Small-scale excavations were undertaken by Wynne Ffoulkes in 1849 which revealed sections of dry-stone walling and produced a number of artefacts, including flint arrowheads and Roman pottery.

Much of the hillfort is presently covered by mature heather and billberry and used as rough grazing for sheep. The hillfort is generally in very good condition, with only 24 management issues identified, of which 13 relate to livestock and six to visitors. The only issue of any significance is the southern approach (plate 8), comprising a narrow braided footpath with a steep gradient. Erosion is most serious on the steepest sections where bedrock and loose stone are now exposed. Grazing levels do not appear to be a concern and there are only minor issues relating to sheep tracks and small scrapes. One issue which may need addressing in the future is the boundary which follows the western defences (plate 9), comprising a stone wall with a post and wire fence on the upslope side.

Moel y Gaer, Llanbedr

Moel y Gaer Llanbedr, photo 84-C-276 © CPAT

Moel y Gaer (PRN 100607; SAM De 010) is located to the south-west of Moel Famau, on the summit of a ridge extending westwards from the main Clwydian Range (SJ 149617). The defences consist of a double bank and ditch, with an additional outer bank across the spine of the ridge. There are two inturned entrances, the main entrance lying to the north-east, and the second on the west side. Small-scale excavations were undertaken in 1849 by Wynne-Ffoulkes near the main entrance, revealing stone ramparts, evidence of burning around the gateway and a sherd of Roman pottery. The recent survey has identified 13 potential roundhut platforms, all of which lie on the northern side of the hillfort, with some within the internal quarry ditch.

The hillfort is largely covered in grass, with bracken and gorse encroaching around the ramparts, and an area of gorse in the interior. The present landuse is as sheep pasture and a number of sheep scrapes have developed, particularly along the ramparts. Although these are generally not serious issues at present, there are three areas of high impact where more urgent remedial action is required. Of the 27 issues which have been identified, the majority relate to sheep scrapes and tracks, in addition to which there are several areas on the western ramparts and inside the western entrance where rabbit burrowing is also active, although this is not presently causing significant damage.

Moel y Gaer Llantysilio

Moel y gaer, Llantysilio, photo 83-C-539 © CPAT

Moel y Gaer, Llantysilio (PRN 101366; SAM De 126), is the smallest of the six hillforts, occupying one of the lower summits of Llantysilio Mountain (SJ 167464). The defences consist of a single rampart with a discontinuous external ditch and an inturned entrance on the eastern side. The recent survey has identified at least eight roundhut platforms on the eastern side of the interior, although more are likely to be masked by the dense heather.

The hillfort lies within an area of moorland largely covered by heather and bilberry. Of the six hillforts within the study, this has by far the most serious management problems, all of which relate to unauthorised access by off-road vehicles and scrambling bikes, a problem which is not confined to the hillfort, but extends across the ridge of Llantysilio Mountain. A broad, rutted vehicle track rises from the col to the east to the hillfort entrance and then across the interior, over the western rampart and down to the col beyond. On the western side there is an additional problem where a large area of heather has been eroded to reveal the thin peat and bedrock where a scrambling circuit has been established. Both the track and the circuit are highly visually intrusive and the former in particular is actively eroding the archaeology of the hillfort. Other issues are all of minor significance, including several small sheep tracks, areas of sparse vegetation and a fence across the foot of the south-east rampart.


Penycloddiau, photo 87-C-109 © CPAT AP

Penycloddiau (PRN 102273; SAM Fl009) is the largest of the six hillforts in the Clwydians, lying on the central ridge, between the Wheeler Valley and the Vale of Clwyd (SJ 128676), which at this point rises to an altitude of around 440m OD. Penycloddiau is one of the largest hillforts in Wales, with the defences enclosing an area of 21 ha. The hillfort is multivallate, with a continuous inner rampart and discontinuous outer rampart, together with additional outer defences at the northern end. The summit of the hill, at the northern end of the hillfort, is surmounted by a small mound which may be a Bronze Age burial cairn (PRN 102277).
The northern end of the hillfort was subject to a total station survey by CPAT in 2000 in connection with erosion control works along the Offa’s Dyke footpath, which follows the ridge through the hillfort. Further detailed survey work was undertaken by CPAT in April 2004 over an area of around 7ha within the interior which was affected by a serious heather burn in April 2003. The results from that survey identified up to 16 certain or potential hut platforms, most of which are terraced into the natural hill slope, with a further 27 roughly circular hollows (could have contained huts) in the lee of the ramparts which. In addition, a number of areas were also identified where huts could have been located due to their sheltered position and the relatively level ground. These results clearly demonstrate the potential for detailed survey once the heather cover has been removed.

The majority of the hillfort is covered with heather and bilberry, although with some bracken encroachment on the east side and an area of scrub along the outer western defences. With the exception of the western defences, which are surmounted by a boundary fence, the hillfort is entirely rough grazing for sheep. As noted above, the heather burn of 2003 affected a large area of the interior, although this is now largely regenerating. There are, however, a number of areas on the north-eastern ramparts where sheep scrapes are developing and preventing satisfactory regeneration. Of the 79 management issues identified, 46 relate to sheep scrapes and tracks, while only 14 are related to visitors, four to vehicles, two to mountain bikes and three to fencing. The majority of sheep activity occurs on the ramparts, and in particular the eastern inner rampart and both entrances. There are several areas of more extensive sheep scrapes which require remedial action, as do some of the tracks. On the whole, visitor erosion is not a significant issue, largely due to previous works to manage access across the northern ramparts with the installation of steps and brash cover. There are signs, however, to suggest that at this point the path is still an area for some concern, due in part to the use of mountain bikes which are forming new erosion scars alongside the steps where the brash has deteriorated . Of more concern is the active erosion of the potential burial cairn on the summit, which is crossed by the main footpath and is actively eroding. The post and wire fence along the western inner rampart, and those fences crossing the defences, are all likely to need replacement which will impact on the ramparts, and are presently visually intrusive.

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