I grew up in South Wales on a blue hill; my bedroom looked north towards the mountain of stone and Mynydd Twmbarlwm -the twmp. When I was a child the twmp of Twmbralwm occupied a special place in my young psyche. Looming above the valley below drawing the horizon into the forground -dark and haunted as the sun sank, green and verdant when it beat down from the clear summer sky.
As I grew I asked about the strange shape of the far/near horizon. The general theory amongst the kids my age was that it was a Norman fort or a prehistoric burial mound, some also said that it was where the Romans kept an eye on the subjugated but ever rebellious Silures -the tribe who gave their name to the nearby Roman fort of Isca Silures (which later became the birthplace of Arthur Machen, Caerleon). It turned out that all of these theories were right and that the site had been in use from the Iron Age through to the Norman invasion. Until relatively recently it was still a site of a pilgrimage of sorts for local people on Good Friday.
Whilst I found the history of the site interesting my young mind was turned more and more by the folklore surrounding the mountain. Folklore that was, in its entirety, dark and grim and therefore of great fascination for a prepubescent boy such as I was. When I was 10 my mother, who worked in the giftshop of the local museum, brought me home a pair of books by local author Alan Roderick: Ghosts of Gwent and Folklore of Gwent. I was thrilled by these books and read them until the binding crumbled and they were but a collection loose leaves. The volume on folklore had plenty to say about Twmbarlwm.
According to Roderick in the early 1800s (the exact date escapes me though I think it was the 1830s) a local antiquarian led a team of navies up the mountain to excavate the mysterious mound. It was a clear summer’s day as they climbed from the village of Risca yet as they approached the summit the sky rapidly darkened as storm clouds rolled from all directions. As the team neared the summit lighting began to strike the ground all around the twmp causing the superstitious navvies to flee and the excavation to be abandoned. To the best of my knowledge there still hasn’t been an archaeological investigation into the mound itself.
Some years after the aborted excavation it seems that people noticed that the number of honey bees in Britain had dropped drastically. Their whereabouts were soon discovered when thousands upon thousands of bee corpses were discovered to be covering the twmp and the top of the mountain. As if all the bees in Britain had migrated there and fought to the death.
Then there were also the tales of missing children on the mountain. In stories dating back to, at least, the 18th Century children playing on the slopes of the mountain hear the sound of music, and no I don’t mean Julie Andrews, drifting on the breeze. One of the children inevitably goes to find the source of the music and is never seen again.
Like I said, dark stuff.
As I grew into a teenager the place continued to dominate my mental landscape and, as a young teen, friends and I would cycle up the mountain and go camping on its slopes. Then I grew older and discovered the various alternative subcultures that thrived in the local area I began experimenting with all the usual things that kids experimented with at that age -drink, drugs, and as much sex as possible.
Being as this was South Wales one of the main recreational drugs that we experimented with were the local mushrooms -Psilocybe semilanceata or Liberty Caps. ‘Camping trips’ soon became a regular feature of autumn and early winter for me and my friends. We would spend days wandering the fields picking mushrooms in order to make insanely strong ‘brews’ from hundreds, sometimes thousands, of the strange little mushrooms. We would then go camping in the coniferous woodlands below the twmp and spend an evening expanding our consciousness. In fact I had my most powerful and vivid hallucinogenic experience on that mountain, at a friend’s bachelor party, which had me seeing clockwork maggots crawling red hot from the embers of the fire, stars swirling in the night sky above our clearing and figures on horseback ducking impossibly through the trees around us.
These experiences were all fun and games as I completely understood that the things I was seeing and hearing around me were the product of imagination and Wales’ most famous botanical product. However one evening we did have a genuinely strange experience. An experience that has many explanations, none of which are satisfactory.
It was maybe 17 years ago that this occurred and it was right at the end of mushroom season so it would have been early November. We had the last of our super brews bottled and were just waiting for an excuse to indulge. Just such an excuse cropped up, though I forget what it was, and so we decided to drive up the mountain one Friday night. Five of us drove up the mountain to start setting up the camp at around 9 o’clock in the evening. Four of us got a fire going, gathered enough firewood so that we wouldn’t need to gather any whilst we were altered, and the fifth returned to town to pick up the last of our party who had been working in a local pub.
Well, it turned out that our bartender friend had gotten home from work and fallen asleep on the sofa. Our driver having something of a crush on her decided to wait, rather creepily now I think about it, outside her house until he could wake her up.
Whilst we were waiting we opened a beer and those that smoked rolled a couple of spliffs to pass the time. After a while of sitting around chatting we inevitably experienced periods of quiet where our gazes were drawn hypnotically to the fire. It was during one of these lulls in conversation that we heard twigs snapping in the forest around us. Now bear in mind that it was approaching midnight in November and we were a good half an hours walk away from the nearest houses. So the sound of multiple people walking in circles around our camp did unnerve us slightly.
We shone the one torch we had into the narrow gaps between the oh so straight trees around us but we couldn’t see anyone, even if we shone the torch where just a moment before we had heard a twig snap. Over and over this happened and then, as we were starting to get seriously freaked out and called into the night “Hello, hello, who the fuck’s there?” We heard it. A child giggling -first to one side of us, then the other. A high pitched giggle that would sound right and natural on a primary school playground but at midnight in November far from the nearest houses sounded decidedly unnatural.
Those giggles were the final straw and we poured water over our fire and struck out for the road. As we walked in single file following Ryan, the only one of us who had thought to bring a torch, the sounds of people running around us continued, as did the giggling. It would get nearer then farther making us jump and urging us on until we were as close to running as we dared in the dark.
It was such a relief when we finally cleared the trees and bundled out into an open field bathed silver by the moon. We walked rapidly away from the woods glancing back over our shoulders at the giggling woods as little voices rang out “Goodbye! Goodbye!”
That was the last time we went camping on Twmbarlwm.