a legendary tour of Pembrokeshire

On a lonely road near the village of Eglwyswrw in Pembrokeshire, I pull over as instructed and check my position. I can see the crags up on the ridge to my left, and I can see the boggy ground between. This must be the spot. I set off on foot up the squelchy, tussocky slope, picking a circuitous path towards the ridge and those distinctive crags, part of the Preseli hills.

The Welsh tourist board has dubbed 2017 a Year of Legends to celebrate the land’s epic past, with events and new routes encouraging visitors to explore. Pembrokeshire is particularly rich in history and I’m trying out part of the recently unveiled 118-mile Legends Cycle Route, as well as the pick-and-mix Legends Tombstone Trail, which covers all of south-west Wales (both can be done by either bike or car).

Pembrokeshire map

The place is thick with antiquity: forts, settlements, burial chambers and cairns, plus innumerable references to King Arthur. Little wonder JRR Tolkein loved the area. Every hollow and hillock seems imbued with deep significance and dark secrets. The Legends route starts in Neath, the other side of Swansea, but I’m covering the last 25 miles of it before picking up the Pembrokeshire section of the Tombstone Trail, finishing almost as far west as you can go, in St Davids.

The Preseli hills are not high – just 536 metres at their highest point – but they make up for lack of stature in austere drama. I get my first taste of this from the top, looking west across a landscape of bogs, crags and treeless slopes. This ridge line is reputedly the ancient Golden Road along which gold mined in Ireland’s Wicklow hills was transported to southern England. I climb to the highest set of boulders, marvelling at their boxy geometry. Am I imagining that slight bluish tint to their smooth flat surfaces? Is there something unusual in this rock formation? Like it was manmade long ago? A tremor of excitement hits me.

My journey into the myths and legends of north Pembrokeshire started just the day before, and with a spot of good luck. A glamping site on a farm called Ffynnon Samson, just south of the Preseli hills, proves to be a charming place with a campfire and great views of the Milky Way, and its welcoming owners, Emily and Matt Marl, turn out to be inspirational travel gurus for the region.

Taking me on a tour of the farm, Emily has a flood of useful tips – places to walk, swim, eat and drink – and some unexpected gems: “There’s a ring of standing stones at Gors Fawr [a few miles to the north-east]. If you jump up and down three times in the exact centre, you’ll drop through a portal into another world.” And more practically: “The pub in Rosebush is excellent, and Welsh-speaking. When Matt was learning, he tried to order in Welsh and got “ice” mixed up with “sex” – rhew and rhyw. It does make a difference.”

While I’m trying to imagine Matt demanding, “a Coke with plenty of sex”, Emily is on to the next thing: “Don’t miss Pentre Ifan burial chamber – wonderful at sunset.”

My notebook is brimming with ideas for side trips off my main route when Emily delivers her killer line: “You know they mined the Stonehenge bluestones just up the road?”

That was the one that got me. That would be my starting point. That was how I ended up climbing Three Cairns hill to Foel Drygarn fort and taking the Golden Road, wondering how on earth those massive stones could have been transported 150 miles to Wiltshire. It is still a total mystery. For me the other big mystery is why this lonely Welsh mountain has more soul than Stonehenge. One reason may be that much of Wales has maintained a deep connection of language and landscape, an unbroken centuries-old relationship. And with that connection, the legends linger.