Man’s presence in the Cambrian Mountains can be traced back at least 5000 years, and many of the paths and tracks in the Elan Valley are associated with Bronze Age cairns, standing stones and stone circles.
The Cambrian Mountains are criss-crossed by roads engineered by the Romans, east-west and spinally north-south. These routes were defended at strategic locations by marching camps, of which nearly a dozen have been identified, thanks to the relatively low level of human disturbance of these uplands. Fresh discoveries continue to be made from the air.
The Cistercian abbey at Strata Florida Abbey was the centre of a large mountain estate with granges throughout the Cambrian Mountains. Paths would have been established based on the requirements of visiting pilgrims, the need for monks from the abbey to travel to chapelries on the remoter parts of their estate, and with their sheep to the outlying granges. There were also the routes used by the monks to access fisheries. Many of these paths would have been in use previously, and later the long distance cross-country routes became drove roads.
The degree to which the granges were accessed by maintained routes is uncertain, as without clearer documentation and structural examination, dating such features is very difficult. Some of the most important routes associated with Strata Florida Abbey which still survive on the ground are*:
- The Monks Trod – an ancient route linking the abbey with the granges of Nannerth and Cwmdauddwr in Radnorshire, and with its sister abbey of Cwmhir.
- The route from Strata Florida to the chapelry at Ystrad-ffin and the grange of Nant-y-bai, via Soar-y-mynydd.
- The route from Strata Florida SE to Nantystalwyn.
- The route from the abbey to Llyn Gynon and the Teifi lakes for fishing.
- Lôn Lacs – the old route from Strata Florida to the fishery at Aberarth.
Drovers’ routes across the Cambrian Mountains may have existed since before the Roman occupation, and these routes became increasingly important in the 18th and 19th centuries, until the coming of the railways. Sheep, cattle and geese were transported along the ridgeway and valley routes of the Cambrian Mountains to markets in England. The routes would originally have developed to provide the quickest and easiest route over the mountains from the various collecting points, often using already existing tracks, subject to availability of overnight accommodation at farms & inns on the route. Other cross-country routes evolved in the 18th century to avoid paying tolls when the Turnpike Trusts were set up. The main drove routes across the Cambrian Mountains were:
- Tregaron – Abergwesyn
- Ponterwyd – Llangurig – Rhayader
- Devil’s Bridge – Llangurig
- Devil’s Bridge – Rhayader
- Ffair Rhos – Rhayader
- Strata Florida and then to join the Tregaron – Abergwesyn route
- Pumsaint – Dolaucothi – Caeo – Cilycwm and then on to Llandovery
- Llanddewi Brefi – Cilycwm and then on to Llandovery
Mining lead, copper and gold in the Cambrian Mountains can be traced back to the Romans, but lead mining peaked in the mid to late 19th century. Many of the mines were high in the hills, and paths became established which led from the villages to these mines.
The Hafod Estate in the western foothills of the Cambrian Mountains, has many recreational paths created by the owner, Thomas Johnes, in the late 18th century to show off his estate to distinguished guests, such as Turner, Coleridge and the Duke of Bedford. Most still survive and are maintained. The Victorians also popularised the tradition of climbing mountains, and routes up Pumlumon would have been well-known at this time.
Many of the historic routes of the Cambrian Mountains have survived largely because of the remoteness of their setting, and the absence of intensive human activity, two of the important special qualities of the area.
* Roads and trackways of Wales by Richard Moore-Colyer. Landmark Publishing 2001. ISBN 1843060191