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Pentre Ifan 1

This is the second part of our trip to West Wales last September.

Whilst camping in Carmarthenshire we managed a trip to two local cromlechs, this, the larger of the two is Pentre Ifan and is supposedly high enough for a man on horseback to stand under. As it’s just eight foot I think they may have meant a man on a pony.

Pentre Ifan

The monument is on a hillside with an amazing outlook over Fishguard Bay – a tomb with a view! It was constructed around 4000 years ago and is the remains of a long barrow. There would originally have been a mound of earth over 120’ long laid on the top and which would have extended around the entrance to form a courtyard a little like Belas Knap. The huge capstone, which looks delicately balanced on the tips of the surrounding stones has been estimated to weigh 16 tons.

There is a connection with Druids, as according to W.Y. Evans Wentz, writing in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries

"The region, the little valley on whose side stands the Pentre Ifan cromlech, the finest in Britain, is believed to have been a favourite place with the ancient Drulds. And in the oak groves (Ty Canol Wood) that still exist there, tradition says there was once a flourishing school for neophytes, and that the cromlech instead of being a place for internments or sacrifices was in those days completely enclosed, forming like other cromlechs a darkened chamber in which novices when initiated were placed for a certain number of days….the interior (of Pentre Ifan) being called the womb or court of Ceridwen. "

Of course it could have been re-used by the Druids for this purpose, it would have been ancient and probably disused even then.

In June 1884 it was named as Wale’s first scheduled Ancient Monument.

Another fascinating thing about it is that it’s a focus for fairy sightings. One of which described them as being as small as little children, dressed in clothes like soldiers’ clothes, and with red caps.

Waldo Williams, one of the greatest Welsh Language poets of the last century was born in Preseli, which is just up the road from Pentre Ifan. He was predominantly a folk poet (Bardd Gwladd) and his verse celebrated the locality and the people who lived there. The following poem was inspired by the monument.

Pentre Ifan 2

Remembering (Cofio)

 

Before the sun has left the sky, one minute

One dear minute, before the journeying night,

To call to mind the things that are forgotten,

Now in the dust of ages lost from sight.

 

Like foam of a wave on a lonely seacoast breaking,

Like the wind’s song where there’s no ear to mind,

I know they’re calling, calling to us vainly –

Old unremembered things of humankind.

 

Exploit and skill of early generations,

From tiny cottages or mighty hall,

Fine tales that centuries ago were scattered,

The gods that nobody knows now at all.

 

Little words of old fugitive languages

That were spritely on the lips of men,

And pretty to the ear in the prattle of children –

But no one’s tongue will call on them again.

 

Oh,  generations on the earth unnumbered.

Their divine dreams, fragile divinity –

Is only silence left to the heart’s affections

That once rejoiced and grieved as much as we?

 

Often when I’m alone and it’s near nightfall,

I yearn to acknowledge you and know each one.

Is there no way fond memory can keep you?

Forgotten ancient things of the family of man?

Translated by Tony Conran

Carreg Coetan 1

The second cromlech was closer to the coast, near the River Nyfer’s (Nevern) mouth, in a small field by a housing estate in Newport. It was tiny in comparison to Pentre Ifan and you had to hunch up to get under the cap stone. It reminded me of a toadstool, I absolutely loved it, there was such an amazing and friendly energy to it.

Both these cromlechs are aligned with the nearby hill of Carn Ingli (‘Hill of Angels’) which is part of the sacred landscape, although  it is difficult to envisage Carreg Coetan’s position in respect of the others, enclosed as it is with hedges and houses. Carn Ingli would have been a great place to visit as it has a large number of interesting monuments -  neolithic tombs, standing stones and an Iron Age Hillfort.  It apparently takes it’s modern name from the antics of a local Christian saint, St. Brynach, a great friend of St. David,  who used to climb the hill to converse with angels.

Carreg Coetan 2

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Calanais photo

From our recent trip to Glastonbury we go back .. back … (imagine harp music and rolling mist) …  back …to our journey to the Hebrides last year. I’ve promised Mr Stoatie to finish off recording the trip and I reckon there will be just a couple more posts after this. If I leave it any longer we’ll be celebrating the first anniversary!

The wonderful image above I borrowed from here. Our photos were taken mid morning and aren’t quite so atmospheric! Calanais sits on a ridge of land which means that not only is it visible from all around but you get fantastic uninterrupted views to most of the horizon from the monument too.

There were several phases of development. In 3500BC the land was under cultivation by early farmers, then between 2900BC and 2600BC the central ring of thirteen gneiss stones was erected around the huge central monolith (4.8m high!). About 2600BC a small burial chamber was placed in the centre, it’s possible the stone rows were added in this period too. Around 2000BC a cairn was raised over the chamber and cremated bones and pottery buried in it. From 1500BC – 1000BC this chamber was emptied and the land was ploughed once again. From 800BC  peat began to form – by 1857, when it was removed, it had reached 1.5m up the stones.

The site was excavated by archaeologists in 1980-81, and one fallen stone re-erected. At the southern end of the monument there is a rock outcrop from which you can get a good view of the entire monument, which resembles a Celtic cross with the four avenues  of stones meeting at the edge of the central ring. These avenues are aligned with the four cardinal directions.

To illustrate I’ve borrowed an aerial photo from this article by Philip Graham of the RCAHMS, which was published for the Day of Archaeology project. (Pop over to his page, it has an interesting drawing of the stones made in 1866 which shows exactly how far up the stones the peat went, you can tell by the staining!)

There are various theories why Calanais was built, the site certainly has many astronomical alignments which would have been the centre of ceremonies and/or celebrations. The southern line of stones, and the large monolith are on a bearing of 180.1 degrees, true north-south. This means the pole star is framed by the avenue to the north and the avenue to the south marked the point the sun and moon reach their highest in the sky.  The eastern and western avenues point to the sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes.

To the south you can see a range of hills on Harris, which are known as ‘the old woman of the moors’ – they form the outline of a woman lying on her back. Every 18.6 years when the moon reaches it’s southernmost point it is seen to both rise and set behind these hills.

The stones have been tentatively identified by Aubrey Burl as the Temple of the Hyperboreans, which was mentioned by the Greek philosopher Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st century BC. He remarked that the God Apollo was said to visit the Hyperboreans – a race living on a faraway northern island, about the size of Sicily – once very nineteen years. He also mentioned that the moon was said to skim very close to the earth there too.

It takes 19 years (or 6939 days) for the Moon to return to the same spot in the sky at same phase, this is very significant for us Druids of course, as nineteen years is said to be the length of time the ancient druids spent in training. This Metonic Cycle is the basis of many ancient calendars.

Calanais 1Calanais 2

Looking southwards up the avenue.

Calanais 3

There were pointy bits on several of these stones (and on stones at the smaller circles) Were they pointing something out perhaps? Or maybe you could lash something like a flag or stick to them? Who knows!

Calanais 4

Flowers and feathers at the central stone.

Calanais 9

Calanais 5Calanais 6Calanais 7Calanais 8Calanais 10

The central circle.

Calanais 11Calanais 12Calanais 13

I thought Mr Stoatie did a marvellous job with the photos, it almost looks as if we were alone. Actually the stones were very busy! The visitor centre is a short walk away and we had to wait a little to get a parking spot. There were also several coach parties which came as a shock, as we’d been used to far fewer people on the other Islands and certainly no buses!

The picture below shows what is was like really. It did take an edge off the experience having so many other folk around (this was taken after one bus had left) but how wonderful for everyone, including someone with a disability walker, to be able to get up close and personal with these amazing stones.

image

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Sorry for the blogging hiatus, I’ll try to explain what’s been going on in a subsequent post but I’d really like to crack on with our Hebrides trip!

arriving Eriskay

From Barra we took the ferry to Eriskay, which is a tiny island connected to South Uist by a causeway. It’s famous for it’s grey ponies, the breed almost became extinct in the 1970s – it was saved by a 100% Eriskay stallion called Eric – but I only managed to spot one pony as we made our way over the island.

Once on South Uist we made our way up the only main road which runs north-south. On the west were flat areas of lochs and machair and huge white beaches whilst on the east were hills, mountains and a rocky coast. We stopped off at one of the beaches to give the dogs a run.

South Uist 1

Unfortunately the weather started to take a turn for the worse and the blue skies were replaced by cloud. There was also a biting northerly wind which blew sand into your face.

South Uist 2

At one end of the beach we found rocks and had fun exploring the pools. Mr Stoatie found a baby plaice lying on the sand at the bottom of this one but it buried itself before we could take a close up!

Rockpooling

There were only a couple of campsite listed on South Uist, we made an attempt to find the one at Lochboisdale but ended up the wrong side of the loch! Rather than drive back to the main road and then drive back along the the other side we  decided to head back to a site we passed just after the causeway from Eriskay.

Kilbride

It was a good flat site, a bit exposed but there were wonderful facilites. One of the other campers spotted an otter whilst stretching his legs so we headed out to the tiny beach after tea. Unfortunately we didn’t see anything!

Kilbride 2

Attached to the site was a marvellous cafe and in the morning we treated ourselves to black pudding barmcakes for breakfast, absolutely delicious! 

Kilbride Cafe

We then headed back up the main road. On an island where most of the buildings are small crofts it was rather incongruous to find this ugly church sat by the main road.

South Uist 4

Church South Uist

On thing you notice is that the islanders are very accepting of modern buildings, although most of them are a lot more picturesque than this.

Machair harvest

cows

We stopped off at the Cladh Hallan roundhouses, which date from the late Bronze Age. There are three visible, there are thought to be another three or four buried under the neighbouring sand dune. It was a pretty atmospheric place.

Hut Circle

Hut Circles

And about two hundred metres from the round houses was this beach.

Beach 2

We were enjoying a walk when Mr Stoatie pointed out that we were being watched – there were three seals in the sea.

seal

It was a bit like the seal encounter we had on Skye, they just seemed happy to stay at a distance and watch us. Mr Stoatie spent some time trying to get a decent shot but they seemed to know just how far his zoom would work and stayed just out of range.

seal 2

seal snaps 2

The dogs and I retired to the edge of the dunes to get out of the wind and watch the action. It was starting to drizzle.

beach dunes

Charlie started to entertain himself sliding, he would work his way down and then run back up and do it all over again.

charlie sliding

Machair

Machair 2

We’d left the ScoobyVan parked by a graveyard. These are almost always on a hill overlooking the sea and not by a church. Stunning locations and oddly comforting.

churchyard

Peat stacks would become a common sight as we worked our way along the Islands.

peat

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