|A Passion Indulged
When we first met, I cautiously revealed my love of oolitic limestone and other such rocks to the arresting Kate, concerned she would reject me as some weird anorak. Happily, she has a broad experience of folk, so far from being unnerved by my eccentric hobby, promptly offered to take me anywhere I wanted in North Wales. Which was an extraordinarily generous, if little foolhardy, gesture. "And you'll have to see The Druid's Circle" she told me, "It's fantastic!". Six months later, we were off to Penmaenmawr to see not only The Druid's Circle, but a medley of megalithic sites. At the time, it all looked very simple and straightforward – especially as Kate had produced a 1:25,000 OS map which I remembered to take out into the field.
Driving up the steep 'Mountain Lane', which leads onto the side of Foel Lus, we arrived at incongruous twin pillars which signify the end of the road. I almost expected some extras from Jason & The Argonauts to coming running down the grassy footpath, chased by sword-wielding skeletons. The pillars are in fact a Victorian monument to mark Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee of 1887, and the footpath round Foel Lus is known as 'Jubilee Walk'. We wisely picnicked there prior to starting the long footslog along Ffridd Wanc (intriguing name) and onto Cefn Coch and Moelfre. Looking up at the imposing mountaintops, we could easily see a few of The Druid's Circle stones standing out against the changing sky; with the wide expanse of Conwy Bay to our right, and the drop down to Penmaenmawr below, they already seemed pretty inspirational.
We set off along a rocky track on a very steep hill. "Is it true that Welsh sheep have two legs longer than the other?", I asked Kate. "Is it heck!" she replied indignantly; but then we saw three sheep sat below us – on a slope so steep, all of them had a couple of long legs stuck out as anti-slip props. I sincerely hoped we weren't going to have to scramble up slopes of that nature.
There's Druids In Them Thar Hills . . .
Fortunately, we didn't, and soon we arrived at the first stone circle on the map – Red Farm. I was expecting a fully-formed circle, but it was Kate who correctly identified the gently curving arc of four short stones as the visible remains of a broken circle. Shame, really, as it had probably been very impressive and reasonably sizeable. I contemplated nipping over the gate into the field to have a closer look, but as it is very close to the farmhouse itself, thought better of a quick trespass on this occasion. I did manage to balance on a rock by the wall and fire off a couple of pictures with my long lens, so hopefully, they'll be useful.
A few yards along, opposite the farmhouse, stood a huge, wide, curvaceous boulder which appeared to be very much a standing stone – although it wasn't marked on the map. (Or didn't seem to be – squinting hard at the map now, I can just see it next to the green diamond for the North Wales Path, right by the farmhouse). I notice that it is included under the Red Farm page on TMA as Bryn Derwydd, which is the name of the farmhouse as far as I can tell. Interestingly, Bryn Derwydd means Druid's Hill. It certainly doesn't mean Red Farm – that's Fferm Coch. Does this area on the map called Bryn Derwydd allude to the hike up to The Druid's Circle, or to the fact that both the Bryn Derwydd Standing Stone and Red Farm Stone Circle look across to the mountainside of Cefn Maen Amor, and the striking boulders of Cefn Maen Amor Stone Circle?
Blink, and you'll miss 'em. Four stones are all that remain of this once proud circle, judging by the survivors. They are in a field not far from Bryn Derwydd farmhouse, so I wouldn't advise brazen trespassing.
They look quite pretty, nonetheless, and by balancing on rocks at the side of the drystone wall bounding the field, it is possible to have a good look at them as they sit in a graceful curving line.
Especially intriguing is their position in relationship to Cefn Maen Amor
circle, which can been seen on the summit of Cefn Maen Amor mountain directly behind them on the eastern horizon . . .
Further along, there is a huge standing stone right outside the farmhouse, the Bryn Derwydd Standing Stone. It's an impressive erection, and like the remains of Red Farm, looks towards Cefn Maen Amor.
It was clear we were entering a deeply sacred and important landscape, and I wondered whether these sites could be used in conjunction. It would be easy to watch someone performing a ritual suitably dramatically (to stand out clearly against the skyline), high on Cefn Maen Amor – would it be a ritual mirrored by a lesser incumbent in the circle far below?
This is clearly an important and impressive site - and the views it commands must be stupendous. On this occasion, we saw it from the Red Farm
circle; yet the size of the boulders that form it are huge, gazing down magisterially from their lofty summit, a significant sight for miles around.
Footpaths circle the whole of the mountain. To reach the peak, the footpath crossing the southwestern side is probably the best choice, but it will still necessitate a hearty stroll across the mountaintop on unmarked land.
Intrigued, we carried on past some dear little lambs, and walked up the hillside until we came across the next stop on our tour – Circle 275. What a sweetie! A delightful little five stone circle, reputedly the smallest in Britain. It sits there, cute and lovely, a few hundred yards from The Druid's Circle, and just IS.
Small, but perfectly formed. Very endearing, and evidently the smallet circle in the British Isles. I can well believe it. Definitely worth a look when exploring the Penmaenmawr area.
I would have dallied longer, but Kate was urging me on as clouds were gathering over the enticing stones further ahead, and photographic light was diminishing rapidly.
Nipping over a mountain nant, I executed an enthusiastic and rapid scramble towards the big circle, which was standing out against the increasingly grey cumulonimbus. At the same time, a skylark suddenly flew heavenwards from the centre of the stones, singing beautifully. The silhouette of bird and stone was magical. But it was merely a hors-d'oeuvres for the majestic, spell-binding scene that opened out as we approached.
Powerful! Dramatic! Gripping!
Quite frankly, I didn't know where to look. The landscape was vast - on the left one huge broad sweep of bowl-shaped moorland led the eye up into the ridges and crests of larger mountains; to the right the fields dropped away steeply to the ocean and equally impressive vistas. Conwy Bay stretched for miles out into the Irish Sea, and before us lay the mouth of the Menai Straits and the eastern edges of Ynys Môn - Anglesey. It was all one potent, overpowering mix of space. The expanses of sea, sky and mountain were tangible as separate elements, yet unified as one. Truly a sacred landscape.
The amount of cairns and circles scattered all about served to underline this fact, but before I could explore further, I wanted to appreciate The Druid's Circle. This impressive ring of thirty odd stones is sited quite unusually, I thought, given the location. To the immediate north of the circle is a large mound of earth from which it possible to look down on the stones; yet from within the circle, this mound blocks all view of the beautiful bay, which is clearly visible if you take a few steps to the east or west.
Too concerned with taking photos in fading light to look at all the stones (I ought to have given more attention to the natural curving 'shelf' on one of the stones, the 'Stone of Sacrifice', as it quite interesting. Lurid legend has it this was the resting place for babies sacrificially slain within the circle), but I was taken with a stone that Kate pointed out to me as looking like a monastic or druidic figure. It was quite eerie, and approached from a specific angle, looked very much as if it might turn and confront a passer-by. I was later to discover this was the 'Deity Stone' mentioned in stubob's folklore notes. Certainly does appear as if it could give someone a hefty clout.
A splendid place. Certainly one to sit and contemplate in for a while, enveloped by the sea, sky, and land which entirely surround the observer on all sides. A large ring, with some significant stones; most spooky being the one that has the form of a white-robed druid.
The location of this circle is intriguing; despite stunning views over Conwy Bay to the north, it has been sited behind a steep mound, thus blocking the view of the sea. Or has the mound been built in front of the circle? There is no doubt that the mound, whatever its origins, is an excellent observation post for anything that might be taking place in the sacred space below.
Also interesting is the proximity of Circle 275
and Circle 278
, which flank this larger circle a few hundred yards away on either side. Were they used in conjunction with ceremonies inside the Druid's Circle?
This is a lovely place, and well worth an extended visit with a decent picnic over the course of an afternoon. You might also want to take along a couple of megalithic guidebooks and assorted information to explore the rest of the nearby moorland, as it is littered with sites of interest, some easy to find, some not so easy.
Circles Of Confusion
The wind had begun to whip into a chilly breeze, and solid rain clouds were on their way over from Anglesey, so I quickly set off to have a look at Circle 278, which is listed as a ring cairn. Here, two charming, yet flummoxing, circles lie only a few metres apart within the same grid reference. One is a wide circle constructed of stones several feet deep, which I took to be the ring cairn (subsequent research would suggest this is the case), and the other is an attractive but disordered collection of large stones*, which clearly had a set design sometime ago, but now seem very muddled. It was this tumbled mass that captured my attention for the short time available, although I really only had opportunity to fire off a few pictures.
This a confusing one. There is a ring cairn which I believe to be Circle 278 just beyond a far more interesting jumble of stones*, which appear to have been moved about somewhat. There is clearly confusion over the name of this mix of stone; please refer to my weblog for a more in-depth discussion.
It's all very lovely, nonetheless!
*Edit by TMA Ed: the "jumble of stones" is now generally thought to be Monument 280
This structure seems to be the source of much debate as to whether it is Circle 278 or not. Personally, I don't believe that it is Circle 278; trying to find out more information since our visit, I discovered that it is listed on the Megalithic Portal as 'Moelfre Stone Row'.* Well, I am a tad dubious about this also, for three reasons: 1) it looks far more like a badly broken stone circle than a stone row to me; 2) it lies almost the same distance to the west from The Druid's Circle as Circle 275 does to the east. Each of these smaller circles are visible from both the interior and exterior of The Druid's Circle, and especially from its northern mound; 3) according to the map, this confused collection of stones does not lie on Moelfre Mountain, but on Cefn Côch.
The fact that these circles all lie within site of each other echo the pattern further down the valley with Red Farm and Cefn Maen Amor Circles. Could Circle 275 and The Jumbled Heap have had a similar purpose to side-chapels in a modern day church, acting as lesser centres for worship compared to the large Druid's Circle, yet still being contained within its power, or the power it focuses from the surrounding landscape? Would they have been used in conjunction with the larger circle?
For purpose of clarity, it might be an idea to name this jumble 'Penmaenmawr Stone Circle', which is what the RCAHMW database offers for the grid reference SH722746. (I realise it also offers about 11 variants for the same site on the same co-ordinates, e.g. Penmaenmawr Stone Circle C,D,E,F,G,H,I,J,K,L,M), but as there clearly weren't 11 other obvious sites on that spot, I would humbly suggest that this might be a useful name. However, and most irritatingly, the RCAHMW also suggest the same name for Circle 275, which is already additionally named as such on TMA. Therefore, I will humbly stick my neck out and propose this enigmatic feature be known as Cefn Coch Stone Circle as a suitable solution for the time being. Sadly, I do not own a GPS gizmo, and had not seen greywether's forum posts on the subject – otherwise, I would have been more assiduous in paying attention to its precise location with regard to other landmarks; hopefully my photos will reveal information of use. [*Edit: this is (now generally thought to be) Monument 280 - TMA Ed.]
But enough of this – the clouds were now stacking up darkly, and we were in danger of a wetting, so we decided to leave this fantastic place, and head off for the next sites on the list – Caer Bach, Maen-y-Bardd and two standing stones.
Is She Or Isn't She?
In the event, by the time we returned to the car, tired ankles and distracted navigating cut out Caer Bach, and we headed directly for Maen-y-Bardd. The map gave every impression of a nice easy road to drive along, where it would appear we could merely pull up, hop out, and enjoy the site without too much strenuous walking. Hah! I forgot this is Wales, and what is on the map does not always follow in the field.
Kate flung the solid and trusty Ford Focus up an increasingly steep, winding, narrow road, full of blind corners on a 1:3 gradient - which was fun, if not a little nerve-racking. The map suggested that the next megalithic port of call was only a few hundred yards along the road after a youth hostel at a place called Rhiw. In the event, the road abruptly stopped at the youth hostel, turning in to a rutted, rocky track navigable only with a rugged 4x4. We were going to have to do it the neolithic way after all.
Leaving the car outside the youth hostel, we walked up the track, enjoying the just-budding green leaves on the trees, and the remains of bluebells alongside clumps of wood anemone and lesser celandine. As we walked further uphill, a pretty little nant full of mossy stones and trees burbled along below the path, whilst above us, we could see into fields of sheep. We also spotted a jolly handsome black neck cock pheasant in the steeply banked hedgerow. He eyed us warily, the sun glinting on his fabulously coloured purple and red feathers, giving them the texture of a richly shot silk or taffeta which wouldn't haven't looked out of place in Harvey Nicks. . . dahling.
We carried on in the beautifully warm sunshine, until the fields opened up, spreading away into craggy mountainside, and ahead in the field nearest the road stood a perpendicular stone. I had noticed that the 1:25,000 map said that there are two standing stones at approximately this point – but where was the other? Looking around, the nearest thing in relation to the picture on the map was a very solid drystone wall. Further scrutiny revealed another upright, though slightly leaning stone - much the same height as the single one in the field - built in to the wall. This had to be the pair that the map mentioned.
But I was puzzled; there seemed to be no reference to them on TMA in relation to Maen-y-Bardd, which is odd, as the dolmen is only a hundred or so yards away. The single one certainly had to be a standing stone, of that I was certain – but I wasn't quite so sure of her sister. Looking on the RCAHMW website, I see that one is listed as a 'Standing Stone (Alleged) Maen-y-Bardd', but continues to say it is prehistoric. Looks very much like a standing stone to me, so - 'is she or isn't she?'
"There it is!" said Kate, pointing to the next field along from the ??standing stone. Against a blue and cloudy sky, in emerald fields scattered with crags and boulders, Maen-y-Bardd appeared to be one more lump of limestone rock protruding from the earth; but a second glance revealed a tiny and charming cromlech nestling in the landscape. We eagerly trotted up for a closer look.
What an exquisite place, and an exquisite structure. A definite one to visit, a megarak's must-see.
I said to the arresting Kate that it was a little gem, and then was put in mind of small iced biscuits. Now, I'll never be able to eat a purple-topped Iced Gem without thinking of this most divine example of dolmen building.
It is perfectly constructed in every way, and enjoys terrific views over the Conwy Valley. (See weblog for further details).
Go on. Treat yourself this summer. You won't be disappointed.
'The Poet's Stone' is a veritable delight, a joy to behold; truly a thing of beauty. Though small, it is exquisitely engineered – clearly, an accomplished craftsperson designed and erected it 5,000 years or so ago. (We suspect it was probably a woman ;o) ). I was particularly impressed with the dressing of the rock on the underside of the capstone, and the manner in which the capstone rested on the uprights. It would have been impossible to slip a sheet of paper between them, especially in the northern corner.
The front of the capstone is supported by a cleverly artistic placement of stones, such that when viewed from either side it appears to be balancing on a single slim pillar of stone. In reality, two fairly broad slabs of rock are doing the job, with the entrance between them. A triumph of design.
The chamber itself is perfectly rectangular – great care has been taken to square everything off precisely – and the atmosphere within very calm and secure. Not very high roofed, it was necessary to stoop once inside. I wanted to sit in the serenity of this chamber for a while, but the presence of young and fresh ovine ordure prevented me from doing so. Certainly didn't feel right to see sheep poo lying in such a wonderful space.
But it is the views that add to the splendour of this little beauty. Maen-y-Bardd commands the most staggeringly beautiful vistas across sand banks of the River Conwy as it wends its way to the sea, views that encompass swathes of idyllic rich Welsh countryside for miles around. Soft fertile pastures give way to woods and moorland; acres of steeply swelling hills to the east of the river; and the craggy peaks of Tal y Fan behind this most charming of dolmens. A slight haze hung in the late afternoon light, but the springtime warmth and greenery was so welcome after the murk of winter.
Kate stretched out in the sun a few feet away as I took photographs with gay abandon, and I would have been happy to spend the rest of the evening there, had we been suitably equipped with a tartan rug, warm clothing, slap-up picnic with lashings of ginger beer, and a couple of bottles of Old Peculier. But we weren't, so ruefully we left to rescue the dogs and find a pub. As we walked away, I took a final look at the magnificent scene before me.
"What a fabulous place to end up," I said to Kate thoughtfully. "I certainly wouldn't mind being laid to rest here – would you?"
"No," she replied, "That I wouldn't."
Birds sang, a buzzard kewwed, and timelessness wrapped about us.
Posted by treaclechops
28th April 2004ce
Edited 2nd July 2008ce
treaclechops's TMA Blog
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