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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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.

Cors-y-Gedol Dolmen, Gwynedd

Cors-y-Gedol turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. We had planned to spend the day exploring an area south of Harlech, with the main place on our itinerary being the burial cairns at Dyffryn Ardudwy  ( previous post).
This was one of the occasions where the information board at one site mentioned another interesting dolmen in the area (one I hadn’t heard of), so after a look round the burial cairn at Dyffryn Ardudwy we headed south from the village and took the next road left to Cors-y-Gedol.
This was a long straight road lined with oak trees and led up the hill to the Elizabethan manor house of Cors-y-Gedol. At the top of the road was a car park which was the starting point for various footpaths and walking routes up into the hills. We parked here and went through a field gate onto a gated farm road that led across the hillside.

It was a very pleasant walk along the road and the dolmen  was  right beside the road, so no problem finding this one!

The large capstone is supported by an upright at the front but the rear is resting on the cairn material. Like most dolmens, it would have been a long cairn with a cairn of stones covering the chamber and extending some distance to the rear, making it a long trapezoidal shape. This one was about 25m long and some of the cairn material is still clearly visible on the ground.

There isn’t much left of the burial chamber and most of the stones from the cairn would have provided useful building material over the years but it is still a picturesque dolmen in a very attractive setting.

Looking north west to Bardsey Island and the tip of the Llyn Peninsula in the distance

Walking along the road I’d noticed a lot of stones lying around and outlines of stone structures in the grass and undergrowth. Further investigation revealed that the whole area, particularly to the east (on the hill side of the track) was covered in what is probably the remains of hut circles and enclosures. No doubt providing plenty evidence of this area having been inhabited and farmed for thousands of years.

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Further along the road I came to this hut circle, probably dating back to the Iron-age.

The remains of the walls are probably quite well preserved underneath the grass and vegetation that’s grown over them.

Oak trees and gnarled hawthorns growing round the rim of the site emphasis the circular shape and give the interior quite an enclosed and private feel.

From the car park you can do a short walk along the road to the cairn, but for a longer circular walk you can carry on  until you reach the River Ysgethin.  From there you can  follow a footpath up the hillside and back down to the car park. The path skirts round this area which is full of intriguing remains. Definitely requires another visit and more investigation!

 

Dyffryn Ardudwy Burial Chamber, Gwynedd

This really is a lovely setting. Two burial chambers sit on a bed of stones in the shade of the trees and from their elevated position the sea is visible down below.
The village of Dyffryn Ardudwy is on the coast road, half-way between Harlech and Barmouth and the cairn is accessed by a sign-posted path at the southern end of the village.

 

The smaller, portal dolmen was built first. This is a typical dolmen shape with a heavy capstone resting on two portal stones and sloping down towards the rear. A closing slab acted as a door that sealed the entrance and after that, deposits were probably place inside through gaps in the sides and at the southern end of the tomb.

 

I’ve since read that there’s a small cup mark on one of the portal stones but I didn’t see it at the time.

Some time after the first tomb was built, a larger tomb was built to the east of it and then a monumental cairn was built which incorporated both tombs.  There’s plenty of the cairn material left on the ground to give a good idea of the size of the extended cairn.

The larger tomb, looking west with Cardigan Bay visible on the horizon

Fragments of Neolithic pottery were found in the older tomb and both Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery was found in the later one.

Showing the extent of the cairn material and giving an idea of how long the cairn would have been in its day

There are many prehistoric remains in this area. On the slopes leading up from the coastal plain to the higher hills behind you can find  dolmens, standing stones, stone circles and remains of ancient settlements. The Dyffryn Burial Cairn is the best example of the portal tombs in the area but there are others that are also worth seeing, such as Cors-y-Gedol, which we visited next and will probably be in the next post.

Looking from the large cairn to the small dolmen

 

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!