Drumau - ‘The Sacred Mountain’ by Jeff Griffiths
Whether consciously or not I imagine many of us will gaze up at Drumau at some point most days. (Many and varied have been the spelling of this mountain's name but I've adopted what is now the conventionally accepted correct form in Welsh of 'Drumau’.) Mynydd Drumau, meaning "Mountain of the Ridges", has steep facing slopes here on its east side which make it appear more impressive than its actual height of 272m/ 892ft. It’s been described as a sacred mountain because of the presence on its top of prehistoric burial cairns and the megalith or standing stone - the second highest in Glamorgan - known as the Y Carreg Bica (‘the pointed stone’) or Maen Bredwan which probably dates to the Bronze Age between three and five thousand years ago. Our prehistoric ancestors chose to bury their dead on prominent locations, sites which might also have served for them as ritual gathering places. Boulder cup marks, a form of prehistoric art found widely around the world, have now been identified in close vicinity to the standing stone.
As a prominent feature in the landscape the Carreg Bica was named in a charter of King John in 1203 as a boundary marker between the lordship of Gower and that of Neath. The ancient Gower lordship includes far more than just the peninsula of Gower, stretching as it does from Rhossili right up to the Black Mountain at Brynamman. The lordship still exists and continues to generate a substantial income for the Duke of Beaufort who has inherited this title and its landed estates.
Drumau consists of Pennant Sandstone and stands in an area of geological disturbance. The fault lines along the sides of Drumau and the neighbouring March Hywel mountain form the edges of that broad trough of land which lies between Alltwen and Bryncoch. Drumau’s fault line is clearly revealed in the bare rock face with its fallen boulder field above Darran Wood. Numbers of minor earthquakes associated with this faulting have been recorded over time.
The mountain played a role in one of the ground shaking advances of human knowledge. Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 - 1913) lodged in Bryncoch Farm while working as a surveyor in this area. It was while walking Drumau and exploring the Vale of Neath that he first developed a love of botany which led to him becoming a world acclaimed naturalist. Wallace would go on to conceive, along with Charles Darwin, the theory of evolution of species through natural selection, though it was Darwin who reaped most of the acclaim for this discovery.
The mountain’s resources have been much exploited down the centuries. The Cistercian monks grazed their profitable sheep flocks on Drumau’s flattened top and may have built some of the earliest stone walls there. It’s been quarried - some will remember Bater’s Quarry with its splendid masonry wall and delivery chutes near Penshannel at the Skewen end - and extensively mined for coal. Large sunk pits which tunnelled under the mountain existed at Bryncoch and in Skewen employing hundreds of men, a major local industry until its collapse in the late 1920s. Numerous drift mines - ‘adits’ as they are known, which follow the coal seams horizontally - dot the flanks of Drumau and some small, private mines continued working to well within living memory. A video exists of the Darran Mine filmed in 1983: this enterprise was one of the last in South Wales to employ pit ponies to pull the coal wagons (‘drams’). Coniferous forests were planted which covered large portions of the mountainside above Bryncoch and Skewen. When the Forestry Commission sold off its land the Woodland Trust acquired three woods, Coed Maesmelin at the Skewen end, Dyffryn and Tyn yr Heol at Bryncoch in the 1990s, aided by generous contributions from local people, safeguarding these areas for nature and recreational use. Coed Maesmelin, purchased in 1998, had the distinction of becoming the Trust’s 1000th woodland in the UK. These woods flanking Drumau consist of the sort of primeval forest that would once have covered much of the country before clearances. Drumau proved unsuitable for agricultural exploitation and so the ancient character of its woods were preserved. An exciting recent development has been the discovery of the very rare Blue Ground Beetle in Coed Maesmelin. A Heritage Lottery Fund aided project directed by Buglife Cymru and Coed Cadw/the Woodland Trust organised a series of events to increase knowledge of this rare beetle, improve its known habitat locally and to search for it in neighbouring woodlands.
Drumau played a part in the Second World War having a decoy station on its top where fires were lit to simulate bomb damage to the nearby Llandarcy oil refinery, a prime target for the German Luftwaffe’s bombers. A WWII bunker from this time can still be found there. At the foot of the mountain not far from Longford Court is a small industrial area known to some as the Coach Works from one of its past uses. A wartime reserve fuel depot was based here with an underground pipeline connecting with Llandarcy in case the vitally important oil refinery there was bombed. The local Home Guard unit had a combat practice area close by the Glyn Clydach Pond. They'd have been well aware of the strategic importance of Drumau mountain which might still conceal an underground bunker where an Auxiliary Unit of the Home Guard would have hidden ready to harry the enemy in the case of German invasion. One such an underground installation has been discovered on March Hywel and it would make strategic sense to site one on Drumau as well to ensure good surveillance from both mountains of the surrounding area. In more recent decades it was once common for military aircraft to fly low and noisily over Drumau, spooking humans and animals alike. The flat mountain top has also been used for glider flights launched by winches and as a grass flying strip for powered light aircraft and microlights. There was even a horse racing course on Drumau’s top for a short time.
A mountain in a populous area inevitably generates many legends and stories. Perhaps the best known is the folktale that on Easter morning the Carreg Bica uproots itself to take a dip in the river Neath. Children from Skewen used to race up the mountain at Eastertide, a tradition that continued until the 1930s. Within living memory three prominent crosses used to be erected and floodlit on the Skewen end of the mountain for Easter. An article in the recently published The Neath Antiquarian Volume Three by Dewi Bowen examines the theory in relation to local prehistoric monuments that some were erected to observe the movements of the sun, moon and major stars. The Carreg Bica, with its commanding viewpoint on Drumau, receives special attention as a location from which such astronomical observations may have been made. Drumau has its share of unusual phenomena as might be expected of a mountain associated with strong folkloric, mythic and religious dimensions. There have been sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) while other reported mysterious phenomena include hearing the Carreg Bica emitting a singing noise under the full moon. Some believe that geological fault lines as exist on this mountain may be responsible for unusual phenomena like emitting strange lights.
And did you know that Drumau is classified as a 'Marilyn', i.e. having at least 150m of a drop in all directions – that is, if you climb this mountain from any direction you'll always have to climb at least 150m to do so? Drumau is one of 158 mountains in Wales to fall within this Marilyn category, a term coined to complement the better known 'Munros', i.e. peaks above 3000 feet/ 915 metres.
I’ll finish with lines from a poem entitled 'Carreg Bica' by the late Terry Hetherington who had a deep love for our sacred mountain and its history:
'... from these infinite heights circled
by falcon and raven ...
Silurian fire still smoulders
darkly at this site of
divination, the great