Some thoughts on the Gwyl Ffraed sunrise line and related times and places

by Olwyn Pritchard

This is an article reproduced from the private blog. Some of the links & mentions refer to other private articles, so will not click through. A few of these may be posted in this public blog at a later date. You are advised to subscribe to this blog.
A documentary and a book are in the wind that will provide a great deal more information.
Thank you Olwyn, for another great article. – Ellis

 

Gwyl Ffraed sunrise at Ffraed’s Well, Llanllawer.

Ellis asked me if I could investigate the Ffraed’s Day sunrise alignment, as seen from Her Holy Well at Llanllawer. Here’s what I found..

In early February, a person standing just above Ffraed’s well will see the sun rise from a wide V shaped notch in the horizon, east south east of the well house. The notch is actually a valley, wending between the lower slopes of Foel Eryr on its left, and the ridge of hills – Mynydd Morvil extending to Mynydd Cilciffeth, on the right.

The River Gwaun flows seawards down the nearer stretch of this cleft, below the well, but it is a tributary, the Pontfaen Brook, which creates the sunrise notch. A road runs alongside the brook and both a straight line (such as a sunbeam is), drawn along the valley, and the roadway, lead to a very interesting place – Banc Du, an ancient enclosure set on a rounded hill, south of the peak of Foel Eryr.

A brief note on the archaeology can be read here – https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/308024/details/banc-du-causewayed-enclosure-new-inn

Banc Du from the South – Foel Eryr behind -photo by the author
Banc Du from the air – photo by Toby Driver, RCAHMW

 

Archaeologists think that these ‘causewayed enclosures’, are some of the earliest constructions in Britain. They were probably gathering places, to which people came from far and wide. Banc Du lies near the crossing of two long distance routes; one, the well known east-west track along the Preseli ridge, extending to St Davids in the west and, in the other direction, over the Carmarthenshire uplands to the Towy valley and routes to the east. The other is a less obvious, but still traceable, north-south path joining Manorbier, a sheltered inlet with a dolmen overlooking it, on the south coast, and Newport – another sheltered inlet on Cardigan Bay, due north of it and also with a dolmen overlooking the water.¹

Fishguard Bay, the Gwaun Valley, and the Pontfaen Brook would have offered another route to the enclosure for travellers arriving by sea, one which the B4313 still follows. Perhaps en route they stopped to pay their respects at Ffraed’s Well, it wouldn’t have required much of a detour.

A further astronomical discovery at the well, one which Ellis had already intuited https://thesongofffraed.com/2017/05/12/calan-haf-beltane-first-day-at-the-summer-well/ (footnote 2), concerns the direction the well house faces. Standing behind the well, and looking along the spine of the curved masonry cover, the peak of Mynydd Cilciffeth rises up in front, dominating the horizon. I took a compass bearing on the summit of the hill, and also measured the altitude. 148 degrees – with 6 degrees of altitude, roughly equivalent to a rising point of 142 degrees on a level horizon. This means that the peak would never host a sunrise – 142 degrees is too far south even for mid-winter. But it would be just right for the Major Standstill summer moonrise, the most southerly possible, full moon-rise, which occurs only once every 19 years.

The well canopy focusses its gaze upon the peak of Mynydd Cilciffeth.

 

The silhouette of Sant Ffraed in the holy well.

The waters of Ffraed’s Well flow out in that general direction, and the well house reflects that. Apparently the first record of a structure there in recent times dates from the 13th century. Yet the amazing co-incidence of the rare moonrise, emerging from behind the mountain peak, viewed from that spot beside the bubbling spring which runs towards it, must have contributed to the sacredness of the place since earliest times. Maybe this influenced the placing of the many ‘Druidical relics’ recorded by Fenton (see link above). Only a few now survive, sadly.

The relics include the stone row at Parc-y-Meirw, about a mile up the road to the west of Ffraed’s well. This damaged but still impressive row of large stones, not visited by Y Ddraig, has been covered elsewhere in the Song of Ffraed, :- https://thesongofffraed.org/2020/06/11/parc-y-meirw-field-of-the-dead/

It’s interesting to note that this row also seems to be a ‘lunar’ site. Alexander Thom discovered that it is aligned on the Minor Standstill moonset, occurring behind Mount Leinster, 90 miles across the sea in the Wicklow mountains. This event happens at dawn around the winter solstice, again roughly once every 19 years. The Minor Standstills happen mid way between the Major ones; the last one was in 2015. The other end of the row would indicate the Minor Standstill summer moonrise, from behind the Preseli peaks.

Marking the extreme points of the lunar cycle with monuments was a Bronze Age preoccupation, with most, if not all, the monuments which celebrate them dating from that period. The earlier Neolithic monuments, where they have astronomical alignments, usually relate to the solar cycle, and are, at least in west Wales, mostly simple chambered monuments (dolmens) aligned to admit light at one or other (or occasionally both) solstices.

Local people say that there was a dolmen on the green hill behind the Llanllawer church and above Ffraed’s Well. The chamber looked over the village, roughly to the south east, and so was possibly set up to catch the light of the rising winter solstice sun. Ellis found a place on the east side of the hill, where Y Ddraig spiralled, which is likely to reflect where it stood.

The green hill

 

The opposite side of the sky from Gwyl Ffraed sunrise is where sunset happens at Beltaine and Lammas. From the actual well, low down in the field, the green hill occupies that quarter and presents a very close horizon. But stray from the bridleway which passes through the field, and climb the hill, and the top of Strumble Head may be seen.  It is not easy to distinguish exactly which outcrop is which as the further rocks are partially concealed by a nearer ridge, hosting Carn Gelli, a source of some interesting volcanic rocks and a notable part of the sacred landscape/skyscape of Rhos-y-Clegyrn.

The ridge, with Carn Gelli at the left hand end, which, when viewed from Llanllawer, largely obscures the Strumble Head outcrops. At Beltaine and Lammas the sun will set behind Carn Folch, just visible sticking up above the right hand end of the ridge.

 

As seen from the green hill, the Beltaine and Lammas sun will set into Carn Folch, just visible above the Carn Gelli ridge. Carn Folch, another volcanic outcrop, is a dramatic place with panoramic views also visited by Ellis but not by Y Ddraig,* who seems to prefer a softer and less rocky path. The outcrop is home to Carn Gilfach, a simple chambered monument set on its south side, with distant views in all directions, except between northwest and northeast. The dolmen consists of a large capstone, which appears at first sight to be sitting on the ground. In fact it is supported on small stones with an excavated, semi-subterranean, space beneath. There is no obvious astronomical alignment, the long axis of the oval capstone runs roughly east west, and the low gap beneath faces south, catching the sun throughout most of the day.

* We didn’t know it at the time but Y Ddraig Ffraed would return to this location and does indeed visit the standing stone (now virtually prostrate), another two possibles, and the dream chamber. She carried me there early in the morning of 27th May 2019. – Ellis

The most striking thing about Carn Gilfach, apart from its views, is the pair of triangular basins cut into the top of the capstone. Largely overlooked (as far as I can tell) during previous research by others, I have found little if anything published about them.

Carn Gilfach, the triangular basins cut into the capstone. The nearer one appears to be pointing towards Carn Gelli, just east of winter solstice sunrise. Sighting along the sides indicates the positions of the Major and Minor southern moonrises, which are equidistant to either side.

 

Measurements by compass and clinometer suggest that the basins are indicating some of the extreme points of the solar and lunar cycles, with respect to the local horizon. The more easterly of the two, the far basin in the picture, appears to ‘point’ towards the place where the summer solstice sun will rise from behind the nearby outcrop. The far side of the triangle is aligned on the winter solstice sunset behind a distant ridge in the direction of St David’s and the near side is pointing approximately towards winter solstice sunrise at the eastern end of Preseli.

The pointed far end of the nearer basin appears to be aligned on either Carn Gelli or winter solstice sunrise. Carn Gelli’s divided outcrop is at 126 degrees, 6 degrees east of winter solstice sunrise. Sighting along the sides of the basin, at the water’s edge, gives two points on the horizon to either side of the Solstice position, at around 121 degrees and 142 degrees, in other words, approximately the rising points of the Minor and Major Standstill summer full moons. The nearer edge provides a sightline to the Major Standstill moonset in the south southwest.

If the basin contained water, the Minor Standstill full moon, shortly after rising at 121 degrees would be reflected on the surface as it passed low over Carn Gelli, it may be that this was the intention.

These directions are somewhat approximate since the basins are weathered, and their sides no longer precisely straight (if they ever were). They are, presumably, several thousand years old. It’s enigmatic that, as mentioned earlier, marking the Standstill moon positions, as well as the solstices,  seems to be a Bronze Age practice yet the monument is regarded as being Neolithic, in common with all chambered monuments in the region. This suggests that at Carn Gilfach, either the capstone of an older structure was modified during the Bronze Age by having the basins cut into it, or this may be a rare case where Neolithic people did show an interest in recording extreme moon positions. Alternatively, these low-set, large-capstone monuments with small spaces underneath them may be later than the taller (and reliably dated to the Neolithic) ‘portal’ dolmens such as Llech-y-Dribedd. It seems counter-intuitive that the more primitive chambers should be later, but there are other places in west Wales, where a large low dolmen is set within a Bronze Age ritual landscape, being apparently the sole Neolithic structure present..

Finally, as we began with Gwyl Ffraed sunrise, gleaming in the notch formed by the Pontfaen Brook and showing the way to Banc Du, so we end here, looking to the west from Carn Gilfach, and coming full circle to see the knoll in the middle distance marking the position of Gwyl Ffraed sunset on the sea horizon.

 

Olwyn Pritchard
6th March 2019

 

 

Footnotes:

1: 
The Cygnus Enigma at Manorbier (pdf) Olwyn Pritchard
 Archaeologists helped by storms to find ancient landscapes
North as a Sacred Direction? Traces of a Prehistoric North-South        Route Across Pembrokeshire (pdf) Olwyn Pritchard

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