How to read our historic landscape – part two

Every landscape has a hidden history, and in North Wales there is history everywhere you look. (Part 2 of 3)

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This week regular blogger Phil Thomas returns to the fine art of reading the historic landscape – something that will bring a whole new dimension to your rambles…

If you missed part one of this blog, click here to read it now.

It’s easy to be swept away by North Wales’s beautiful landscapes, but at the same time it’s easy to miss its subtleties. Is that a boulder, or a standing stone? Is that pile of rocks just that, or the remains of a burial chamber? And is the path you’re exploring a route for tourists, or have people and livestock trodden this route for hundreds, if not thousands of years?

Every landscape has a hidden history, and in North Wales there is history everywhere you look. In this, the second of three posts, we’ll share with you the history behind the landscapes – fascinating stones to look out for while enjoying the great outdoors here in North Wales.

Stone Circles of North Wales

Let’s get one thing straight – there are no Stonehenge-like stone circles in North Wales! Even so, our stone circles have their own mystique, not least because of their locations. We’ll reveal where the best examples are later on.

First, some facts. Strictly speaking, stone circles are not the same as henges, despite the most famous stone circle in the world taking this name.

Neolithic henges feature a ring bank and ditch, but with the ditch inside the bank rather than outside. The henges themselves sometimes – but far from always – included timber or stone circles, yet to make matters more confusing, not all stone circles are found inside a henge.

We still don’t really know their purpose, but the most commonly held belief is that stone circles (and henges) may have held ritualistic or even astronomical purposes. In the case of North Wales’s stone circles, it’s tempting to believe the latter, given their location on high hills. Yet stone circles and henges in other parts of Great Britain are also found on low lying areas.

One of the best examples of a stone circle is near Llandrillo in Denbighshire. High on Moel Ty-Uchaf, 440 metres above sea level, is a well-preserved ring of 41 stones on the summit. It is about 16 metres across and archaeologists believe it once consisted of a ring bank of stone with a surrounding kerb. At some point the centre of the cairn was filled with stones to form a level platform. Its purpose is not known, but was likely a place for rituals or even cremations.

To find it, park in Llandrillo village and follow the minor road by the cenotaph out of the village. This becomes a track up onto the hillside. Another approach is via a minor lane opposite Hendwr caravan site off the B4401. Where the road forks by Melin y Glyn, park here and walk up the lane to the right. Don’t be tempted to drive further – there’s nowhere to park.

Another stone circle is located in an even wilder spot. Bryn Cader Faner takes some finding; even driving as far as you can is not for nervous drivers or wider vehicles. Leave the A496 Harlech road at Talsarnau and head for the hamlet of Eisingrug. Take the sharp left – made awkward by massive stone walls – and head uphill. There’s a small parking area at the top and an honesty box for you to say thank you to the farmer for parking on his land. Follow the track which first swings south, then turn left and walk north east towards Nant Pasgan.

After about a mile and a half you’ll find Bryn Cader Faner, a stone circle known as the Welsh Crown of Thorns. This is because of the way its 15 stones lean outwards. Some people regard Bryn Cader Faner as the most beautiful Bronze Age monument in Britain. It’s certainly photogenic and well worth the effort to reach it.

Thankfully, Meini Hirion (Druid’s Circle) stone circle in the hills above Penmaenmawr is a little easier to reach. You’ll still need your walking boots and plenty of energy to walk up the hill, with the shortest route from Graiglwyd Farm (though there’s no room here to leave a car). A longer walk in (but more fun) is from Mountain Lane; drive as far as the steep hairpin, where the surfaced road turns to track, and park by the twin stone turrets. The views are wonderful all the way. Walk up and join the North Wales Coast Path heading west.

Meini Hirion features 30 stones, 11 of them standing, about 35 metres in diameter. When the site was excavated in the 1950s it revealed the capstone of a cist, or burial chamber, inside which was a food vessel that contained the cremated bones of a child. This may sound grisly but is not uncommon – children’s remains point to spiritual beliefs in youth and regeneration.

Meini Hirion is just one of a cluster of stone circles (most barely recognisable as such), cairns and standing stones. Follow the route of the North Wales Coast path west and – with a little imagination – you can see this part of the world must have been important during the Bronze Age. See if you can find another stone circle – a small cluster of just five stones known bizarrely as Circle 275.

A boulder or a standing stone?

We have lots of both in North Wales! So while it might be obvious that the huge stone in a field next to the Black Lion pub, Llanfaethlu, is a standing stone (visible from the A5025), what about those boulders in a hedge off the main road between Brynsiencyn and Dwyran? Gate posts? No, they’re standing stones too – one of which is the tallest in Wales.

So before we explore some of North Wales’s best examples, what are standing stones? Also known as menhirs, they are stones set into the ground by Neolithic people. They date from 4,000 BC to 1,500 BC. We know very little about them but it is generally thought they had both social and ceremonial or religious uses.

They’re found all over Great Britain but there are hundreds across North Wales. Some are obvious, some less so. Some occupy clear vantage points on higher ground while many more seem to exist in certain areas, in clusters, often close to cromlechs or other neolithic remains. This makes sense, showing how people lived in social communities with unpopulated spaces between.

Where are North Wales’s best standing stones? Anglesey’s Bryn Gwyn stones are huge, but easy to miss. Park in the lay-by signed for Castell Bryn Gwyn off the A4080 between Brynsiencyn and Dwyran. Once you’ve explored Castell Bryn Gwyn, which may itself have once housed a stone circle, head back to Bryn Gwyn Bach Farm through fields and follow the public right of way to the stones, which are almost 4 metres in height.

There are so many more standing stones on Anglesey that it’s not practical to describe them all. Tre-Gwehelydd near Llantrisant, has been stapled together with metal brackets yet remains a terrific example, complete with an information board. Bodfeddan is an inscribed stone just off the A4080 between the A55 and Rhosneigr. It also has a cup mark. Bryn Dyfrydog off the B5111 road between Llanerchymedd to Amlwch road is almost square, while Bodewryd, also know as Maen Pres (brass stone), is far more pointed. A legend says that if you cut into the ground around its shadow at a certain time of the day then you will discover treasure buried in a brass container.

Another standing stone ‘hot spot’ is the Llyn Peninsula. At more than two-and-a-half metres tall, Betws Fawr is one of the tallest. Moel Gwynus up towards Morfa Nefyn is part of an interesting cluster of stones. Sadly, many mountainous areas of Snowdonia – with the exception of the northern Carneddau – have fewer stones. Perhaps it was too harsh there even for ancient peoples! Even so, there’s a lovely example, Parc-y-Gleision, off the upland road between Llanberis and Llanrug villages.

Go explore!

One of the best resources for finding ancient remains such as stone circles and standing stone is the community-driven Megalithic Portal. Be aware that descriptions of access and some cases condition of sites may be a little out of date – so why not post your own update here, after you’ve visited?

Another great resource is the Our Heritage website which describes sites across Snowdonia.In part three of this series – coming later this year – we’ll be looking for other tell tale signs of our ancestors’ influence on the landscape, including settlements, roads, lanes and paths.