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!

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.

Penmon Priory, Anglesey

Penmon Priory is one of the most impressive ecclesiastical buildings on Angelsey, with roots going back to the 6th Century and St. Seiriol.  It’s in a tranquil setting at the end of a quiet road in the eastern corner of the island and has views across the Menai Strait to the mountains of Snowdonia.

The original monastery was founded by St Seiriol in the 6th century, a time when there was a trend for monasteries to be built in remote places. Two were founded on Anglesey at this time, this one in the east of the island and another one founded by St. Cybi at Holy Head on the far west side.
It was rebuilt in the 12th century and became part of the Augustinian order in the 13th century. The priory church remained as a church after the dissolution of the monasteries and is still a parish church today.

The cluster of buildings you see today are the priory church, and attached to it, a private dwelling which was once the prior’s house.  Standing beside these is a 3-storey roofless building which housed the refectory on the first floor and dormitories on the top floor.

Beside the priory is a secluded walled garden and some remains from the time of the original Celtic church, including a well, the stone outline of part of a small building and the monastery fishpond.

St. Seiriol’s Well

This lovely old holy well beside the priory is dedicated to St. Seiriol and would have provided water for the monastery. Although the well is ancient the brickwork forming a little shelter around it is 18th century.

Across the lane is a very fine dovecot, built about 1600 to house pigeons which were used  for their eggs and meat.

There are enough nesting boxes for 1000 pigeons!

Puffin Island

St. Seiriol also founded a small monastic community on nearby Puffin Island, or Ynys Seiriol (Seiriol’s Island) as it is called in Welsh. He is thought to have spent the last years of his life here.
From the priory you can take the toll road (about 1 mile) to the beach and look across to Puffin Island and Penmon Lighthouse. Some ecclesiastical remains are still visible on the island, including the remains of a 12th century church.

In the 1890’s the island became plagued with rats, probably due to a shipwreck on the shore of the island. The rats decimated the puffin population and by the end of the 20th century the puffins had been virtually wiped out. However, thanks to an RSPB programme to eradicate the rats the puffins have now returned.
1000 years ago the puffins would have been a food source for the hermit monks living on the island and the monks were also reported to have been doing a good trade in pickled puffins!

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!