North and West Wales

Never one to turn down an opportunity I found myself in north Wales again and this gave me the chance to visit yet more sites and try to enlarge my understanding of the relationships between the monuments of Ireland and their counterparts in west and north Wales.

We had arranged to meet up with two friends, Howard and Ursula, later in the day giving my wife and I chance to get to a few places before hand. The first stop was at the collapsed by nice portal tomb at Hendre Waelod (SH 793 747) on the Conwy penninsula.

fig. 1 : Hendre Waelod

We were very glad to reach the trees that surround and shelter this tomb, for as we approached it started to rain. The tomb offers lovely views over the estuary below, which are enjoyable even on a murky day.

When complete this would have been an impressive tomb. The 2.5m square capstone has now slipped backwards off the portal stones (see fig. 1), but all the sidestones that form the chamber are in place, thus allowing a pseudo-chamber to still exist below. The portal stones are about 1.5m tall and the same distance apart making the entrance very wide. Like many Irish examples the portal faces into the slope of the hill and east.

fig. 2 : Great Orme Mines - Entrance

Our next stop was the prehistoric copper mines on the Great Orme (SH 771 832) (see fig. 3). These mines were only recently realised for what they are; it was suspected that they were Roman at the very earliest, but excavation has revealed one of the prehistoric wonders of the world consisting of miles of tunnels.

fig. 3 : Great Orme Mines - deep excavation

I don't want to say too much about what you'll find here, firstly because I don't know the words to say it properly, but also because I don't want to ruin the surprise for anyone. All I can say is that this is a place anyone in the area should go and see.

There is an audio-visual display that tells the story of the excavations, but even this doesn't really prepare you. In the shop there is a good display of implements and tools that have been found during the digs. This is not a place to go if you're claustrophobic as it involves walking through some very narrow tunnels (see fig. 2). When we visited they were just finishing some new areas to open to the public which means the experience should be even better now.

fig. 4 : Llety'r Filiast

Very close to the mines is the ruined tomb of Llety'r Filiast (SH 773 829). The shattered remains still have a massive amount of cairn material around them and from angle it can be made to look quite good (see fig. 4). However, it's only worth stopping if you're visiting the mines.

From here we head across west to meet our friends at one of the busiest spots megalithically speaking in north Wales: Tal-Y-Fan.

Portal tombs are what most people wrongly refer to as dolmens. They are, to me at least, the most strikingly designed of the megalithic tombs. They are called portal tombs because they have two large upright stones, usually very well matched, in front of the chamber that seem to form a doorway.

Resting upon the portal stones and the chamber a large capstone rests (sometimes there are two capstones - see Knockeen (County Waterford)), usually at an angle of around 22 degrees from the horizontal. Although these were originally incorporated into one end of a long cairn there are none left in this state today, although traces of the cairn can sometimes be seen upon the ground. The portal stones can be up to 3.5m tall, which combined with a thick capstone can produce an imposing monument over 5m tall. Capstones can reach in excess of 70 tonnes, with that of Browne's Hill (County Carlow) being estimated at over 120 tonnes.

Often betwen the portal stones there is a door slab, blocking the width of the entrance, but not always the full height. Door slabs are either half height, three quarter height or full height, describing the amount of the portal that they obstruct. All portal tombs would have had door slab, but this has often been removed to facilitate entry into the chamber.

Quite rarely the portal stones are the same height as the chamber and the characteristic slope of the capstone is created by the profile of the capstone (see Glendruid (County Dublin)).

The large rock used to form the roof of a portal tomb or kist.

Portal stones are a pair of upright stones that form the 'entrance' to a portal tomb. They are usually well matched, being of even dimensions. As well as forming this doorway they also act as the front support for the capstone and are usually taller than the stones that form the chamber.

Often there is a door stone in between them blocking off access to the chamber within.

A cairn is a large pile of stones, quite often (but not always) containing a burial. Sometimes they have a kerb around the base.

Most cairns are hemi-spherical (like half a football), but the piles of stones used to cover wedge tombs, court tombs and portal tombs are also called cairns. When associated with these types of monument they are not always round, but sometimes rectangular or trapezoidal.

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