Dolwyddelan Castle

We’d passed this castle many a time on the road between Betwys-y-Coed and Beddgelert and always intended to stop there someday and explore it.
I always prefer exploring these small castles, built by Welsh princes, to the massive edifices built by Edward 1. Built in strategic positions, they now often sit alone in quiet countryside and if you’re lucky there will be no other visitors and you can have the castle to yourself.

There are no written records of the early history of Dolwyddelan Castle but it is thought to have been built in the early 13th Century by Llywelyn the Great, at time when Wales was made up of separate kingdoms ruled by Welsh Princes.

Unlike the great castles of Edward 1, the castles built by the Welsh princes were small, of simple design and usually built on rocky outcrops commanding views over the surrounding countryside.
The castle owes its good state of preservation today to major restoration in the 19th century.

Dolwyddelan controlled a strategic pass through the mountains of Snowdonia and was built in a lofty position on the hillside, keeping watch over pastures below and the route through the valley.

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It’s a short but pleasant walk from the small carpark up to the castle. The path takes you up to some farm buildings where you have to knock at the farmhouse door to pay the admission charge. From there you follow a path up the hillside to the castle.

On the path up to the castle

I liked these two oak trees growing out of a rocky outcrop

Above – The ruined West Tower, a later addition when the castle was in the hands of Edward 1st. The keep and the ruined west tower are joined by a curtain wall that was built along the top of the ridge

… and up a long flight of steep stairs to the battlements.

Tomen Castell
The tree covered mound in the valley below is the site of a tower that pre-dates Dolwyddelan Castle and was probably the birthplace of Llywelyn the Great. It had been a sizeable fortress but fell into ruin after the new castle was built.

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Plas Newydd Burial Chamber, Anglesey

I’ve come to the end of my ‘Sea Interlude’ posts that I wrote during lockdown, but maybe I’ll return to that theme at a later date! For now, it’s back to archaeology and one of the burial chambers I looked at in North Wales last year.

This is an unusual Neolithic tomb in the grounds of Plas Newydd, a National Trust property on the shore of the Menai Straights.

At first glance this site looks like 2 cromlechs, a large one and a little one sitting beside it, each with its own capstone. They could have been 2 separate tombs within one covering mound or possibly the small one was an ante-chamber or passage into the larger one. It’s very hard to tell from the configuration of the existing stones and it’s more than likely that some significant disturbance and removal of stone took place during the landscaping of the grounds in the 18th century.

The larger tomb has a large capstone sloping from SW to NE which is supported by 4 orthostats at the higher end and 2 at the lower end. The side stones are missing.

I have a small mixed media painting of this cromlech hanging on my wall at home and was looking forward to seeing it for real. I knew more or less what to expect but there was an added surprise when I got up close to it and ran my hands over the smooth blue-tinted stone and realised that the tomb builders had used blueschist, a very rare Precambrian rock with a lovely blue sheen.

Some of the best examples of blueschist in the world are found on Anglesey,  particularly in a small area around Menai Bridge and Plas Newydd. The outcrops here are of such importance that they have Geological SSSI status.
The nearby famous passage grave of Bryn Celli Ddu is also built from blueschist and that made me wonder if any of the other burial chambers and standing stones in this part of Anglesey are also made from it. I guess that means I’ll have to go and have a closer look at some of them!

How to see Plas Newydd burial chamber –
Unfortunately, you can’t get access to it by paying to go round the Plas Newydd grounds as it isn’t in an area where the public are allowed. You can see it in the distance from the picnic area in the National Trust carpark but it isn’t a very good view. Permission has to be sought from NT staff in advance but this was no problem and when I arrived I was directed where to go by helpful staff at the visitor centre.

The burial chamber can just be seen in the field in front of the stable block. I passed a lovely wildflower garden on the way.

I’d liked to have had a good look round Plas Newydd and explored the extensive grounds but as the weather wasn’t very good we decided to save it for a sunny day, when we could go back and take a picnic. We never did manage to go back as it turned out to be the wettest time we’d ever had in Wales and after 3 wet weeks we had accumulated quite a list of places to go back to when the weather was better!

Caer Dyni Burial Chamber, Criccieth

A small, fairly inconspicuous cromlech but worth a visit for its setting above Criccieth and the added interest of some cupmarks.

Criccieth is an attractive coastal town on the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales and it is best known for its imposing Welsh castle, perched on a rocky headland between the towns two beaches. At the opposite end of the beach from the castle a short walk eastwards takes you towards the cromlech.

The cairn is in a ruinous state and the relatively slim capstone has slipped and is embedded in the ground.

A slight mound stretches out from the western end of the chamber, presumably the remains of material from the long cairn that would have covered it.

The mound on the west side of the chamber

There are cupmarks on two faces of the upright stone supporting the capstone.  Four of them are just visible here but they didn’t come out well in the photo. The rest are on the inside of the chamber and although it was easy to feel them when I ran my hand across the stone it was difficult to get a decent photo.

The burial chamber can be accessed from the main road above or from walking along the beach from the seafront.

If walking down to it from the car park on the main road you can see the cromlech from the western end of the carpark. Walk back down the road until you come to a public footpath leading down the hill. The cromlech isn’t far from the footpath.

Stunning views back to the town and castle and R looking across Tremadog Bay and down the coast.

To approach from the seafront, carry on along the beach until you see a public footpath going across the railway line and follow the path up the hill a little way, veering off to the right to reach the burial chamber.

Criccieth beach and the castle

Walking to Caer Dyni across the beach took longer than I expected because I got distracted by geology and beach combing!
The beach is strewn with huge glacial erratics that have broken away from the soft glacial till in the low cliffs beside this section of the beach.

Above R – An erratic boulder coming loose from the soft glacial till. This boulder was about a metre high and many on the beach were even bigger.

Criccieth Castle
Criccieth Beach

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Friendless Churches and Enchanting Ruins

Anglesey has an abundance of ancient churches with histories going back to the early Welsh Saints. Some have interesting features or history and some are just in the most beautiful settings in the landscape. I’ve chosen two lesser known ones here, both redundant except for the occasional service.

St Mary’s, Tall-y-Llyn & the Friends of Friendless Churches

St. Mary’s Church, Tall-y-Llyn sits all on its own in a field along one of the many narrow country lanes in the middle of Anglesey. When we decided to go looking for this small medieval church we realised we’d probably driven past it quite a few times in the past and totally overlooked it.

There are only fields and a few scattered houses nearby. The township of Tall-y-Llyn doesn’t exist anymore as the whole population was wiped out during the Plague and only the church remains. Not much is known of the church’s early history except that there were 22 houses recorded in the township before the Black Death – quite a sizeable village for those times.

There have been some minor changes and additions to the church over the years but it remains relatively unaltered since medieval times and that’s what makes it so special. In the words of its Grade 1 status listing, it is  “a very rare example of a virtually unrestored Medieval church of simple, rustic character.”[
Grade 1 status is only given to buildings of exceptional interest and only a very small proportion of Welsh churches have this status.

The internal fittings such as the pulpit, alter rails and pews were added in the 18th century.

The church was declared redundant in the early 1990’s and in 1999 it was taken over by The Friends of Friendless Churches, a charity who save beautiful old churches of historical or architectural value. They carried out some renovations, which included getting a local craftsman to replace the 18th century pews which had been stolen during the time it was unused.

The pews, which are copies of the original ones, are backless planks, laid into a low stone wall at one end and supported by paddle ends at the other. Utilitarian in the extreme and no differentiation between rich and poor in this congregation!

The Friends of Friendless Churches have left a book for visitors to look at, lavishly illustrated with photos and information about the churches they look after. To date, they have about 50 churches in England and Wales, with at least half of them being in Wales.

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Old Church of St Nidan, Llanidan

My ‘enchanted ruins’ are the picturesque arches of the Old  Church of St Nidan at Llanidan. The church is in the south of Anglesey and quite hidden away at the end of a leafy lane near the Menai Straits.

Arriving at the end of the road you are faced with the churchyard wall and behind it you can see a little of the church and the arches in amongst a profusion of greenery and old yews entwined with ivy.

A church was first established on this site in the 7th century, by St Nidan who was confessor to Penmon monastery, further along the coast. The present church dates back to the 14th century and a second nave was added to it in about 1500, which would have doubled its size. The two naves were separated by arches and these are the arches, or arcade, that you see in the churchyard today.

photo by Bencherlite from Wikipedia, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Much of the church was demolished in the 19th century when a new St Nidan’s church was built nearby but the arches were left standing when the that part of the church around them was demolished. The photo above shows the interior of the present, much shorter church with the arches separating the two naves.

The church and churchyard are locked and only open to the public on occasional open days. Not much of the church can be seen from the roadside but you can look through the iron gate to get a tantalizing view.

The church gate

 The Anglesey Coastal Path goes past the church and the footpath can be followed from the church down to the shore of the Menai Straits.

Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey

In a small lake beside RAF Valley airbase was found one of the most significant Iron Age hoards in Britain.  For a period of about 400 years, from 300 BC to 100 AD precious metal objects such as spears and swords and many other artifacts were placed in the lake as offerings to the gods.

These wetlands of reed beds and small lakes are now an RSPB nature reserve but for the ancient Celts it was a sacred place and throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age it was common practice to place votive offerings to their gods in rivers, lakes and bogs.

Since the original plaque was erected it has been discovered that the artifacts were being placed in the lake for a much longer period of time than the 160 years indicated here.

One of the interpretation boards for Llyn Cerrig Bach showing the proximity to RAF Valley

 The objects were discovered during the Second World War when workmen were constructing the airfield and the first object to be discovered was a heavy iron gang chain, probably used for slaves. The workmen didn’t realise what it was and found it useful for attaching to a tractor to pull lorries out of the mud – it did the job!  Once it was identified as an Iron Age gang chain a further search was made and about 180 objects were found, including swords, spears, blacksmiths tools, horse gear, parts of shields, cauldrons and chariots and a bronze trumpet. Some of the finds are on display in Oriel Ynys Môn, Anglesey’s main museum and art gallery, including this decorated bronze plaque.

Illustration of the bronze plaque with part of a gang chain shown below it

The item that has centre stage in the Llyn Cerrig Bach display, and needs a large glass case to house it, is a replica of one of the two gang chains that were found. It’s a daunting and gruesome piece of iron work, a heavy 3m long chain  with 5 neck shackles and weighs 6.66kg. This is probably evidence of slavery during the late Iron Age in Wales. I was allowed to take a photo but not to publish it in any way, so I can’t include it here, but other photos are available on line.

Llyn Cerrig Bach is situated very close to the runways at RAF Valley and is sandwiched between a road and a railway – although that’s something the cameras usually leave out when it’s featured in history documentaries!

Despite that, when you take the short path down to the lake shore you are among the scrubby bushes and reeds, out of sight of the modern world. The peace and tranquillity may be shattered by the sudden roar of an RAF Hawk taking off but it becomes a peaceful place again between take offs and landings.

Walking back down the road I got a big wave from the instructor in the Hawk as they were sitting on the runway waiting for take off.

Capel Garmon Neolithic Tomb

If I had to name my favourite Neolithic tomb in Wales,  Capel Garmon would probably be the one, due to its state of preservation, its setting in the landscape and the surprise of finding this type of tomb in North Wales.

Most of the tombs in Wales are the dolmen type of structure, containing a single chamber, but Capel Garmon is more akin to the Severn Cotswold type of tombs, such as the famous Wayland’s Smithy and West Kennet Long Barrow. It was very unexpected to find this type of tomb so far away in north Wales.

An artists impression (below) shows the layout of the tomb, with a circular chamber at each end, a small rectangular chamber in the middle and the entrance via a side passage. There’s a forecourt at the eastern end which would have been used for rituals and ceremonies but there’s no entrance to the chamber from it.

Leaving Betws-y-Coed on a Saturday morning we navigated some narrow twisty roads up to the sleepy hamlet of Capel Garmon.  I say sleepy because all was quiet in the village and not a soul was to be seen. We stopped to look at the map on the village noticeboard but although it showed footpaths we still weren’t sure which would be the best one to take for reaching the burial chamber and we weren’t very sure about access either, with it being on farmland.
We needn’t have worried.  About mile out of the village we came to the farm road, where there was a signpost to the tomb and enough parking beside the road for 2 or 3 cars. From there it was an easy walk down the farm road, following the footpath signs until the burial chamber came into view.

Stones mark out the outline of the original cairn and forecourt. The hills of Snowdonia in the background
The west chamber
The east chamber

The tomb is remarkably well preserved, partly due to restoration that was done after it was excavated in 1925. The trapezoidal cairn would have been about 30m in length with a forecourt at the eastern end. Stones mark out the original shape.

The entrance is via a side passage on the southern side and leads into a rectangular central chamber with an oval chamber on each side. 

The side entrance passage and capstone of the west chamber

The main entrance into the tomb nowadays is through a large gap in the end of the western chamber.  This was created when a Victorian farmer turned the tomb into a stable and removed the large orthostat at the end of the chamber.