Wales’ ancient treasures may take a little more effort to find, but a rich history is revealed to those who take the time. Story by Gerard Herter
Our journey started in Cardiff. After exploring the castle and other crowded tourist attractions in the city, my wife Lori and I longed for the peaceful solitude of the countryside. We did not have to travel far for our first encounter with megalithic Wales; Tinkinswood Burial Chamber, a few miles southwest of Cardiff in the Vale of Glamorgan, proved to be an excellent place for an introduction to the country’s ancient culture.
Tinkinswood shares a field with cows and sheep. As elsewhere in Wales, farmers are required by law to allow visitors to traverse their fields for access to the sites.
This type of burial chamber is known as a portal tomb or dolmen. Dating back 6,000 years to the Neolithic period, Tinkinswood consists of a 40-ton limestone capstone measuring 24 feet across, suspended by several large upright stones. The structure was once covered by a mound of earth.
We walked beneath the capstone, where hundreds of human bones were found during excavation. The tomb is all that remains of a prehistoric village’s residents, whose existence left many untold mysteries, including how they managed to erect the massive capstone.
Because of the lack of recorded history, Wales’ ancient sites are focal points for oral folk tales and legends, and Tinkinswood has a couple of ill-fated ones; a person who spends the night on one of three special days of the year will either die, go mad, or become a poet. As well, dancing here on the Sabbath can have dire consequences, as a group of ladies purportedly found out – a collection of boulders to the south of the chamber are thought to be all that is left of them.
What makes Tinkinswood ideal for first time visitors are the prerecorded audio recordings that tell the story of the ancient people who once lived here. Four separate audio selections covered the Neolithic Period, the tomb builders, building a tomb, and further exploration.
Another smaller burial chamber of similar structure, St. Lythans, sits about a mile away. A walk along the Millennium Heritage Trail connects the two sites, and we were content to observe St. Lythans from the road before moving on.
Heading north, we stopped briefly at Llangorse Lake in Brecon Beacons National Park to take in the crannog there. While some ancient lake dwellings date back to the Neolithic period of Tinkinwoods, the Llangorse Crannog was built around 916 AD.
A crannog is a defensive dwelling built out on a lake. Common in Ireland and Scotland, Llangorse Crannog is the only known one in Wales. The remains of the actual crannog form a small, uninhabited island 40 meters from shore.
We viewed the site from a platform extending out from the water’s edge, where the government service, Cadw, maintains an authentic reconstruction at the Welsh Crannog Center. Inside and around the conical, thatched roof structure, we read displays of the life and legends from the time the crannog was active. Apparently built for a royal household, bits of history suggest a tragic end, when a king’s wife and dozens of others were killed by a Saxon army.
Continuing north, we eventually reached Snowdonia and settled in for a few days near Betws-y-Coed, at the charming Tan-y-Foel Country House. The next morning, we met our guide Bernard Owen, a seasoned purveyor of Celtic history.
Finding the lesser-known sites can be a challenge along the narrow, poorly marked lanes of rural Wales. So when Owen recommended we check out another intriguing spot – Fairy Glen – we gladly accepted his offer. Soon we were driving along a lushly overgrown wood, beside a narrow ravine. Fairy Glen is known more for its mystical scenic beauty than for specific fairy sightings.
Stopping to peer down the Glen’s shallow gorge, we saw a small, ancient, unmarked stone bridge spanning the chasm. Though the main part of Fairy Glen is reached by a footpath out of Betwys-y-Coed, Owen had brought us to a remote section with a centuries-old bridge that few visitors would see. He pointed out that the twelfth-century bridge was originally used to drive cattle across to the other side of the stream which flowed below.
Later, we were escorted to a 4,000-year-old prehistoric burial chamber at Capel Gorman in the heart of Snowdonia.
We bid Owen adieu and drove on to the Isle of Anglesey, just north, across the Menai Strait, where the passage tomb of Bryn Celli Ddu revealed more glimpses into the lives of early Welsh inhabitants. Aptly named, meaning the “mound in the dark grove,” the portal tomb was buried under a mound of grass-covered earth, much like it would have been thousands of years ago.
The sun produced sharp shadows as we entered the 28-foot-long chamber. On a cleft inside were trinkets, including a doll, feathers, fruit, a shaft of wheat, and a fork.
These were likely from a modern-day recreation of an ancient ritual. Outside, remnants of a stone circle – or henge – are evident, forming a ditch around the monument. A unique carving found near a ceremonial pit is known as the “Pattern Stone” for its winding serpentine decorations.
The immediate area of the mound is fenced to protect it from nearby grazing livestock. Plaques on the fence describe the burial chamber and henge. Another unique aspect of Bryn Celli Ddu is the alignment of the chamber; the configuration is designed to catch the sun’s rays at daybreak on the summer solstice.
After, we toured the Bronze Age copper mines on the nearby Great Orme headland next to Llandudno.
The copper mines are an extensive labyrinth of tunnels dating back 4,000 years. We descended deep into the excavated hillside formation, originally dug out with stone hammers and animal bones during the Bronze Age. Estimated to have been worked for a thousand years, the mines were dormant until Roman times, and again until more recently. The vastness of the site attests to its richness of metal resources, and the huge economy that thrived for so long ago because of it.
With our next historic destination in the southwest of Wales, we stopped overnight in coastal Aberystwyth. While there, we drove through scenic Rheidol Valley to Devil’s Bridge, finding history here similar to that of the unmarked bridge at Fairy Glen.
Devil’s Bridge is an amazing amalgam of three bridges from three different ages, each one built atop the other. Though visible from the road, a steep rocky path through the wooded vale leads to even more spectacular views of waterfalls created by the river flowing under the bridges.
The topmost bridge is practically new at a little more than a hundred years of age. Beneath it, the second bridge dates to the 1750s. The oldest and bottom-most bridge, which bears a resemblance to the one at Fairy Glen, is thought by legend to have been created by the Devil himself to trick unsuspecting peasants. More likely is that the builders were eleventh century monks from the nearby Strata Florida monastery.
Continuing south to Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, we returned to the Iron Age at Castell Henllys, which translates as “castle of the old court.” Originally an early hill fort, the site now boasts an excellent reconstruction, on the ancient foundations, of four large roundhouses and a granary. Based on its size, as many as 150 people may have lived here in the several thatched roof structures supported by “wattle and daub” walls and fireplaces. Considered a well defended enclave on a hill, various protective techniques were employed, such as the strategically placed upright stones that would slow and snag attackers, making them vulnerable to the inhabitants.
Unlike many of the remote historic sites, Castell Henllys is complete with visitor center and gift shop. The excavation and authentic re-creation make the locale popular for archeology training, school children’s visits, and ritual reenactments.
Nearby, in Pembrokeshire, is Pentre Ifan (Ivans Village), considered the best-preserved Neolithic burial chamber. It is striking, standing out fully exposed on a hill. I easily walked under the capstone that was suspended eight foot in the air – a 16 ton, 16-foot-long boulder, delicately balanced on three other stones for over 3,500 years.
This monument is one of only three in Wales to have been preserved by the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882. Though burial pits were found beneath the dolmen, no bones were located. Various fairy legends are associated with this site, including one that tells of child-like fairies dressed as soldiers, guarding this “portal” to the Otherworld.
Our final ancient site in Wales carries a legendary name; Arthur’s Stone sits high on the Cefn Bryn ridge near Reynoldston, along the scenic Gower Peninsula of South Wales. A path leads up an open field to the perch of the prominent stone, which commands a sweeping view down to the Bristol Channel of the Irish Sea in the distance.
Dating back to 2,500 B.C., and another of the Neolithic burial chambers protected by the Ancient Monuments Protection Act, Arthur’s Stone’s principal feature is the 25 ton, eight-foot-high capstone.
Measuring 13 feet long by 8 feet wide, the capstone is supported just above the ground by several relatively small boulders. Deposited during the last Ice Age, this structure is thought to have been created by the digging out of soil beneath the capstone while inserting the supporting standing stones.
A number of legends surround this site, the main one drawing from the capstone’s shape, which is much like a huge pebble. King Arthur was said to have tossed a pebble he found in his shoe. Travelling some seven miles before landing at this spot, the stone grew from having been touched by the king and was lifted up out of admiration by the adjoining local stones. A ten-ton chunk lying next to Arthur’s Stone gave rise to a legend that it was struck off the main stone by the sword of St. David, patron saint of Wales, who deplored the druid worship here. Finally, young druid maidens were known to test the faithfulness of their beloved by making a cake offering and then circling the Stone three times on hands and knees. If their intended appeared before they finished, they knew he would be a faithful husband.
Back near Cardiff, we wrapped our visit with two fitting attractions: St. Fagans Natural History Museum, just outside of Cardiff, and the National Museum in the capital city center. St. Fagans, is an outdoor reconstruction of dwellings in Wales’ rural past. Though most are from recent centuries, there is a Celtic village re-creation that provides context from the ancient era. The National Museum takes history back to the geologic creation of Wales and follows the ancient story forward in an exhibit titled “The Evolution of Wales.”