As I sit writing, with my obligatory cup of morning coffee at the top of the garden, the subject of this post is watching attentively over me: Twmbarlwm. I live in the South Wales valleys, directly beneath the shape of this iconic local landmark. What better way to introduce myself to the Slow Mountain community, than through the mountain that has nurtured and defined my wild, outdoor spirit. We all have that ‘One’ that began it all, and this is mine…
I feel connected to Twmbarlwm. Not in a ‘mumbo jumbo’ kind of way - I am a pretty down-to-earth person. I have a physical, almost primitive, connection: I feel an inexorable pull towards it from deep within. I have only to glance at its slopes for my pulse to quicken slightly, and for the first rush of eager endorphins to be released. If I tear my eyes away and close them, I hear the diastole and systole of my heart mimicking the rhythmic beat of its name: Twm-bar-lwm. My family have lived beneath its slopes for as long as I can trace, and so perhaps this explains my loyal affinity; certainly, I never feel more at home than when I am sat in the summit’s familiar lap, listening to ancestral whisperings in the wind.
The mountain, to my adoring eyes at least, is wonderfully aesthetic in its form; a fertile arc of lovely sweeping plains with a distinctive ‘Twmp’ (hump) at it its summit. This mound, which is an unmistakable silhouette throughout the valley, is believed to be the remains of an Iron Age hill fort. Probably constructed between 500 and 150 BC, it was the defensive site of the Silurian Celts, who were the dominant tribe in the area before and during the Roman period. The site has not yet been studied in much archaeological detail, and so the mysteries of what lies beneath this ancient fort remain tantalisingly hidden by earth. Unsurprisingly, then, Twmbarlwm is steeped in local folklore and myth, and perhaps this is how the mountain first cast its spell over me as a child. The name itself (which is pronounced ‘Toom-bar-lum’, for those of you who have been struggling with the excess of Welsh consonants!), is believed by some to mean ‘the tomb of Bran’. Bran was a local Celtic Chieftain, and he is thought to be buried in a cairn on the western side of the mound. Legend tells that anyone who disturbs his burial place will unleash a horde of angry bees: the ‘curse of Bran’, and indeed there are many reported sightings of unusual, angry swarms on the mountain. There are also strange tales of subterranean music heard coming from Twmbarlwm, and one such story from 1901 tells of a young girl who heard this mesmeric music and was lured away from her friends and never seen again, at the exact moment that Queen Victoria died. I don’t know if I believe these tales, but I do hear music in the wind there: sometimes it is a melodic, leafy hum with an effortlessly soothing note to it from the Conifers below, and other times it is a rumbling bass which races across the ridge, as if it has a desperately urgent message to impart. One of my most simple pleasures on a day when the gales are clamouring to be heard around the peak is to stand on the edge and lean right into the fray, my coat buffeting wildly as the winds try valiantly to translate their meaning. The winds aside, I have absolutely no doubt that there is magic in the quality of light over Twmbarlwm. On an almost nightly basis, the mountain conjures sunsets of unedited splendour that would leave most Instagram accounts reeling with disbelief and envy. Peeking through the curtains at dusk is like looking through a kaleidoscope, with the silhouette of Twmbarlwm framed against shifting palettes of golden peach, fiery red, and fountain pen ink. But of course, the real treat is watching these atmospheric fireworks whilst sitting at the very top, with the mountain light undressing in front of your eyes. I could melt into moments like these.
It’s easy to see why Twmbarlwm was chosen as the site for the Iron Age hill fort, because the summit provides expansive views of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary, with Cardiff Bay to the South and the Brecon Beacons beckoning in the North. As with all mountains, the view from the top gives me clarity and perspective. Climbing up the final short but lactic acid inducing ascent, my legs always seem to generate a yellow energy, and as I find a sheltered spot to sit just below the Twmp, that energy courses through my veins and seeps into my soul, making me feel as strong and bright as the sun. I believe this to be the very essence of the slow mountain concept: that unparalleled freedom you get on the mountain, with fresh air in your lungs and a quiet acapella in your calves, when for a few precious moments you are completely in tune with the world around you. It’s that clarity that resets your mind, and gives you the strength and inspiration to fight another day.
The mountain teems with life. The Monmouthshire and Brecon canal flows around its base, and often at the beginning of my walk I am treated to the auspicious streak of the Kingfisher, his glorious turquoise and blazing orange plumage setting off technicolour explosions of joy in my very molecules. Higher up, the mighty Buzzard is a regular sight. Many a time I have rounded a corner and been met with his beady glare, and his rich feathers shining like tempered chocolate in the sun as he soars away from my disturbance; like me, the Buzzard prefers the peace of Twmbarlwm to himself. In search of this solitude just last week, I found myself plodding around its lower slopes at dusk, trying to shake myself out of a restless funk, when I came across a badger. I was stood frozen on a style, and not twenty feet away, two bright eyes looked right back at me through monochrome features. He seemed a little surprised at my sudden appearance, but more curious than afraid, and after a magical thirty seconds of sizing each other up, he shuffled peacefully into the undergrowth. This surprise encounter immediately lifted my spirits, reviving my creativity and conviction: I do believe that the mountain shares its wisdom and reveals some of its secrets when I am most in need of restoration.
Twmbarlwm is not particularly big, but it has so many different features, and so many different ways to ascend it. I have made it my personal mission to explore every corner, to tread each trail and to absorb every detail of the mountain into my pores. You know the expression, to know something like the back of your hand? Well, I couldn’t tell you much about the back of my hand without taking a sneaky look at it, but I could sketch you the swirls of bark on my favourite tree with photographic precision, and I could take the rocks of Twmbarlwm’s crags and piece them perfectly back together like a jigsaw. On sleepless nights, instead of counting sheep I find myself replaying routes up Twmbarlwm in my head. I imagine every twist and turn of the path, the maze of tree roots to skip over, the changes in gradient, the tangle of flora along the verges. I usually make it about a quarter of the way through this phantasmagorical journey before I fall, smiling, into a verdant-hued reverie.
A very dear friend of mine once wrote to me in a letter, ‘Isn’t that the purpose of life? To experience something, totally, and then move on?’ Her words have always stuck in my head, though I don’t entirely agree with them. Sure, the thrill of the new charges us with electricity and excitement, and the lure of unexplored mountains is undeniably appealing. I admit that I am constantly looking for new peaks to add to my mountain repertoire (there is a fantastic German word for this, ‘fernweh’, which describes ’a craving for distant places’). But I do believe that there is something to be said for the old favourites: there is certain wisdom to be gained from repetition, and a unique thrill in finding fresh facets to the familiar. Like re-reading treasured classics, belting out an album you’ve heard a thousand times with the volume turned right up, standing hypnotised in front of a beloved painting in the National Gallery or rustling up your most mouth-watering go-to menu, these repeated experiences are some of the most defining features of our character. They are the tree rings that help to build us up and make us who we are, the meaningful deposits of our very substance.
I have a tendency to anthropomorphize Twmbarlwm; it’s difficult not to, when the mountain has so many qualities that I admire. It is loyal, unselfish, beautiful, steadfast and mysterious. Love is a complex, and often over-zealous, word to throw around, but I do believe my relationship with this mountain to be love. We all have that ‘One’ against which we define or measure our expectations of relationships, and we all have that ‘One’ that got away. I have lived beneath the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies, I have basked in the breath-taking splendour of the French Alps, and revelled in exotic, volcanic hikes in Central America, but I never fully fell for their charms. I have always stayed true to humble Twmbarlwm, and I guess that I’m a lucky girl, because my mountain isn’t going anywhere.
- Sian Scott
Sian can be found mainly outdoors, but also on Instagram where her profile aptly reads 'I was born a restless, wayward child...I could hear the whole world calling me outside'. We love Sian's writing and the palpable connection to her Mountain.