St Tanwg’s – the church in the sand

A tiny medieval church nestled in the sand dunes at Llandanwg, near Harlech in west Wales. The present building dates back to the 13th Century but it has an ancient history, with the site itself dating  back to about 435AD, making it one of the very earliest Christian sites in Britain.  

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There are possible connections with St Patrick’s missionaries to Wales, as Llandanwg, along with Fishguard, was one of the main points of entry for visitors arriving from across the Irish Sea.

Inside the church, a 5th century inscribed stone refers to Ingenvus who is said to be a contemporary of St Patrick and the interesting thing about this stone is that it is not local stone but probably comes from the Wicklow mountains in Ireland.

The INGENVUS STONE, an 8ft high pillar grave stone

The church is dedicated to St Tanwg who was born on Anglesey and probably arrived here not long after a Christian foundation had been established at the site.

The church started to fall into disrepair after a new St Tanwg’s Church was built 2 miles away in Harlech in 1839, although it continued to be used for burials.
At one stage the roof had fallen in and the church became full of sand and briars and there are even reports of fishermen drying their nets on the nave.
Over the years the church has frequently had to be dug out of the sand and work to protect it from the sea and sand is ongoing.
Most of the graveyard lies underneath the sand dunes

However, no one wanted to lose such a special church and renovations were carried out at various times in the 20th Century, with major work in 1987.

Nowadays the church retains it’s simple medieval character and many of it’s original features. Services are held here again, particularly during the summer months and in 2000 it regained it’s licence to hold weddings again – and what a lovely, special place to get married in!

 The renovations in the 20th century  unearthed some fascinating ancient stones which provide proof that there has been a Christian foundation here since the earliest days of the Christian church in Britain. Below are parts of two inscribed gravestones from the 5th and 6th centuries and a cross from around the 9th century. These are of great historical importance.

The early 6th Century GERONTIUS STONE

The original bell had been removed to the new St Tanwg’s in Harlech but it was replaced in 1922 by this one (below left) which came from Doobeg in Co. Sligo, where it was used to summon farm workers to work.


Small Pilgrim Places

St Tanwg’s is on the Small Pilgrim Places Network .
These are special places in England and Wales that are small and peaceful and away from the madding crowds. Places for pondering, meditating, praying or just being, and they can be churches, wells, gardens , ruins or open spaces.
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Barclodiad y Gawres, Anglesey

Rock art and rituals in a Neolithic passage grave

This late Neolithic passage grave sits on the highest point of a headland on the west coast of the island. What makes it particularly interesting and worth a visit is the rock art inside the tomb. However, the tomb yielded up another secret when it was excavated in the 1950’s – the remains of what has been described as a witch’s brew – a stew made from small animals, fish and reptiles ( ingredients listed above!).

Its name translates as ‘the giantess’s apronful’ and comes from a legend about a couple of giants who were walking to Anglesey to build a home and were carrying the stones with them. When the wife got exhausted after carrying the heavy stones in her apron she tipped them all out, creating the mound of stones that would have been visible on the headland before it was known to be a tomb.

The mound on the headland
The remains of the original entrance passage

After it was excavated, the tomb was restored and a mound reconstructed over it, so it is completely dark inside.  A 9m long passage leads to a cruciform shaped chamber constructed from large orthostats, 6 of which are covered in rock art.
The most impressive stone is the one that stands at the entrance to the chamber but as you shine your torch around the tomb you begin to see the spirals, zigzags and chevron patterns on the other stones. Perhaps a representation of the entoptic images induced during their rituals and ceremonies?

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Megalithic art tends to be found inside passage tombs and is very rare in any of the other types of prehistoric tombs. Also, the evidence of rituals taking place inside the tomb is also more evident in passage graves.
With its rock art and evidence of ritual, Barclodiad y Gawres has similarities with the passage graves in the Boyne valley in Ireland.

The central chamber has recesses on each side of it and the cremated remains of 2 young men were found in one recess and some traces of bones found in the others.

In the main chamber there was evidence of a large hearth containing a fire that had been kept burning for a long time. This is where the stew remains were found.

Wrasse, eel, frog, toad, grass snake, shrew, mouse and hare had been made into a stew and  placed on the fire, probably to quench it. On top this, pebbles and limpet shells were placed. Pebbles and sometimes shells too, have been found in other passage graves and obviously had symbolic significance. Perhaps these objects and creatures were chosen because they belonged to the ‘other worlds’ of  water, the night and the underground.

The chamber in Barclodiad y Gawres is kept locked and you used to be able to collect a key from the shop in Llanfaelog and go and look round it yourself. Unfortunately, after some vandalism, you now have to arrange for a member of staff at the shop to accompany you and this is only possible at weekends and bank holidays between April and October.

This is one of two reconstructed passage graves on Anglesey, the other one being Bryn Celli Ddu.

Trefignath Tombs, Anglesey

An intriguing Neolithic burial site which contained 3 tombs under one long mound.

Trefignath probably started life as one traditional passage grave. Over the next few hundred years another tomb was built next to it and the cairn extended to form one long mound, which was later increased in length even more when yet another tomb was added to it.

It brings to mind the tombs at Malin More in Donegal or, on a much greater scale, the impressive Grey Cairns of Camster in Caithness.

Photo showing the remains of all 3 tombs, with the original one on the left and the final and best preserved tomb on the right

The first phase

The first tomb has a simple square chamber which was covered by a mound of stones and entered via a short passage on the north side.

The second phase

The second tomb was built on the eastern side of the first one. It was a rectangular tomb with a massive capstone (which is now broken) and 2 large stones marking the entrance. The mound over the first tomb was extended to cover this one as well, forming one long cairn. It  was faced with dry stone walling and a forecourt was added at the eastern end.

The scant remains of the second tomb with its broken capstone. The first tomb is visible behind it
Looking east from the second tomb with the last tomb to be built in front of it

The third phase

The third tomb was added to the eastern side of the second cairn and the mound extended to cover this one as well, thus blocking the entrance to the middle tomb. Two very tall portal stones mark the entrance.

The third, and last tomb to be built, has the best preserved chamber

 Trefignath was excavated in 1977-79 and was consolidated afterwards, with some partial (and not exactly sympathetic) reconstruction.

The tomb builders chose some highly textured stones with veins of quartz running through them

The cairn was built on a rocky outcrop which is slightly elevated above the surrounding low lying land. Its position in the landscape can still be appreciated despite being on the outskirts of Holyhead and the encroachment of modern development which is getting closer and closer!

Trefignath burial cairn with the aluminium works on the other side of the dual carriageway

It used to be accessed down a country road but since the building of the A55 dual carriageway and more recently, a new road and roundabouts into a development area, it now finds itself sandwiched between these two new roads.

There are no signposts to the monument, despite it being one of the important prehistoric sites on Anglesey but access and parking are very easy once you actually find it!

Ty Mawr Standing Stone

Two fields away and going back towards the roundabout is Ty Mawr standing stone. An impressive stone, even with Morrisons Supermarket as a backdrop!  Standing 9ft high and looking as if the stone has been twisted into this shape.

It isn’t known if this stone and 3 other smaller ones are contemporary with the burial mound or if they came later.

Presaddfed Burial Chambers

About 6 or 7 miles away, near Bodedern,  is another example of what was probably another multi-phase site on Anglesey.

The 2 Neolithic dolmens at Presaddfed

The dolmen on the right is still fairly intact but the other one just has an upright and a pile of collapsed stones. There is a written account of the dolmens in the mid-19th century which says that they were surrounded by a pile of stones and it is easy to imagine that they would once have been covered by one large cairn.

This is as close to the cows as I was prepared to go!