The county line between Bridgend and Rhondda Cynon Taff follows a bank of rather dramatic and beautiful mountains (when they are not veiled in cloud). Their ruggedness contrasts sharply with the lush, green pastures of the lowland, coastal areas to the south. Meandering across the top of the first peaks we see, is an ancient road, now little more than a footpath. It is known as ‘the Glamorgan Ridgeway’. It pre-dates any other recognisable thoroughfare in the area, even the ‘Via Julia Maritima’; the Roman road from the Antonine period which these days is loosely followed by the A48. We know this as the Romans themselves described the Ridgeway as ‘ancient’.
In its entirety it runs from the Preseli Mountains in Pembrokeshire to the Severn estuary. There is evidence to suggest that during the Roman era, it was still possible to ford the River Severn at low tide, so it could be argued that the road actually leads all the way to London.
The part which runs closest to us rises at Llangeinor, then winds its way across the peaks through Llantrisant to Mynydd-y-Garth. It is littered with barrows and cairns (ancient burial sites) dating from the Bronze Age and some possibly even older, as well as long abandoned Iron Age hillforts and deserted villages. It also rewards the intrepid walker with spectacular views across our counties and across the Bristol Channel to the north Somerset coast. On a clear day you can see as far as the Prince of Wales bridge to the east and the Gower peninsular to the west.
For much of history this was a drovers’ pass. Used by those hardy men who would risk life and limb driving their valuable charges of cattle from the farms of west Wales to the cattle markets of Smithfields in London. At the mercy of every bandit along the way. There is an account of a gang of ne’r-do-wells from the Llynfi valley who called themselves ‘The Red Goblins’ once mounting an ambush on the Carmarthenshire drovers on this path. They helped themselves to their entire herd.
This path has been trodden by some very famous people down the ages too, and it has a link to one of the most momentous events in British history.
Usurping a throne is a tricky business. Kings liked to perpetuate the notion that they were personally appointed by God to rule, therefore assuring themselves of a bit of security while on the throne. So, when William the Conqueror invaded in 1066 and took the English throne for himself, he had to find ways of demonstrating that he was acting under God’s will. He had to legitimise himself as King.
That was a tall order, so he had to grasp at anything he could. For example, in the Bayeux tapestry there is a scene that shows King Harold visiting William in Normandy before the Norman invasion. He is depicted swearing upon holy relics that he recognised William as the legitimate heir to the English crown. Another tale he spun which is not quite so well known, was that soldiers in his army saw visions in Hastings that they were supported in battle by some of our ancient, Welsh saints. If these saints were on his side, it meant a more ancient precedent was being called up on as they were contemporary with the ancient Britons, and King Harold, after all, was of Saxon decent.
One of the first things William did as King of England to cement this story, was to go on a pilgrimage to the shrines of these saints who had fought for Normandy in the Battle of Hastings. This meant taking the Ridgeway to the tomb of St David in his Cathedral in Pembrokeshire and stopping on the way in Newport at the shrine of St Woolos-the-bearded.
It is believed that William was accompanied on this pilgrimage by a young Robert Fitzhammon. It was while on this pilgrimage that he first saw the fertile fields of Morganwg, in the plains below the Ridgeway. This was the kingdom he would ultimately return to invade and bring under the control of the English crown only 11 years later.
Published in The Glamorgan Star Newspaper and the Buddy Magazine Jan 2022