How to read our historic landscape – part one

In this brand new monthly blog series, writer and hiker Phil Thomas shares the trade secrets of his passion: the Great Outdoors. He lives in North Wales and spends most of his spare time writing or walking in the hills with his girlfriend and their crazy Patterdale terriers.

Phil will be sharing his knowledge of the practical side of walking with real life tips than can help you enjoy the mountains more and maybe even save you if you get in a spot of bother. This week, he introduces us to the fine art of reading the historic landscape – something that will bring a whole new dimension to your rambles…

It’s easy to be swept away by North Wales’s beautiful landscapes. From rock-splintered Snowdonia to the grass-waving hush of the high Denbigh and Migneint Moors, big views are everywhere. They’re easy to admire, but at the same time it’s easy to miss other things.

Is that a boulder, or a standing stone? Is that pile of rocks just that, or the remains of a burial chamber? And is the path you’re on a route for tourists, or have people and livestock trodden this route for hundreds, if not thousands of years?

Every landscape has a hidden history, and in North Wales there is history everywhere you look. In this, the first of three posts, we’ll share with you the history behind the landscapes – things to look out for while enjoying the great outdoors here in North Wales.

Burial mounds and cromlechs

The oldest visible things in the UK are long barrows, or burial mounds, dating back more than 6,000 years from the Neolithic era. Where there’s good soil, these tended to be earth mounds.

Here in North Wales, the more common type of long barrow is the long cairn or chambered cairn (tomb), the construction of which involved the use of stone. The biggest stones, called megaliths, are the stones we see left standing today. In Wales, we call the megaliths left from chambered tombs cromlechs. Elsewhere in England they’re referred to as dolmens, or quoits in the South West.

There are no fewer than six fascinating cromlechs you can visit on Anglesey. At Bryn Celli Ddu outside the village of Llanddaniel and Barclodiad y Gawres near Aberffraw, the cromlechs are still covered by earth. The latter would once have been 27 metres in diameter.

The other cromlechs have lost their earth mounds. You’ll find them at Bodowyr (near Brynsiencyn) and Lligwy (near an ancient settlement of the same name – more of this in part 3). Presaddfed burial chamber, near Bodedern, is actually thought to be the remains of two burial chambers close to each other. Finally, Trefignath (off the A55 near Holyhead) is believed to have been constructed in three separate phases.

On the mainland, you’ll find cromlechs near Capel Garmon, a hamlet in the hills above Conwy Valley near Betws-y-Coed, and above Rowen on a track leading to Bwlch y Ddeufaen mountain pass (Maen y Bardd).

On the Llyn Peninsula, Tan y Muriau on Mynydd Rhiw high above Porth Neigwl (Hell’s Mouth) incorporates two burial chambers. Around 3,000 BC the tomb was modified to include a long burial chamber in a style found in the area between Oxford and Bristol, a fact neither historians nor archaeologists can satisfactorily explain! To visit Tan y Muriau please ask permission at the farm of the same name, as it’s on their land.

Also on the Llyn is Mynydd Cefn Amlwch, near Tudweiliog village and along the same coast towards Caernarfon is Bachwen, in a field between Clynnog Fawr village and the sea. Bachwen’s capstone (the big flat stone across the top of the supporting megaliths) is covered with so-called cup-marks, thought to have religious or spiritual significance. There are cup marks on a rocky outcrop near Cist Cerrig, another burial chamber between Borth-y-Gest near Porthmadog and the main A497 Pwllheli road.

Finally, the Carneddau mountains translate to ‘the cairns’. They boast more than 20 cairns, thought to date from the Bronze Age (2300–800 BC) and are believed to be tombs.

Hillforts, forts, and motte-and-baileys

There are more than 1,000 Iron Age hillforts in Wales, more per square mile than anywhere else in the UK. We’re not really sure what they were used for, despite the name.

Yes, they are found on hill tops which make naturally defensive positions, so the idea that they were places of refuge is the most common. They could have also been social centres, or even built in prominent locations as symbols of power or status. For the most part, people would have lived on farms on the lower plains.

The hillforts in North Wales are known for their impressive ramparts, often because they were constructed of stone and therefore some are relatively well preserved.

Tre’r Ceiri hillfort near Nefyn is probably the best example, featuring massive dry-stone walls and no fewer than 150 stone roundhouses across its vast interior.

Other good examples include nearby Carn Pentyrch and Garn Boduan, and Caer y Twr on Holyhead Mountain. The Clywdian Range in the east features some prominent examples, including Moel Arthur and Penycloddiau.

Not all forts date from the Iron Age, and not all occupy an obvious hill location.

Tomen y Mur is a Roman fort near Trawsfynydd. You’ll need a map to find it as there are no signs from the main A470. The lumps and bumps near the small car park are the remains of an amphitheatre, while others show where a parade ground once was. In fact, Tomen y Mur is regarded as one of the most complete Roman military sites in Britain – but you do need your imagination to picture it!

Just north of Beaumaris on Anglesey, between the town and Penmon point and its lighthouse, is Castell Aberlleiniog, a fine example of a motte. You can either park buy the beach or in Llangoed village car park – from either point you are 200 metres from the reserve which contains this hidden gem.

Nearer to Llanberis is a coastal hillfort at Dinas Dinlle. Although it’s been eroded by the sea, it’s still possible to make out the ramparts on three sides. Roman coins have been found here. Head towards Beddgelert and you can walk up Dinas Emrys, though little remains of its hillfort.

The ubiquitous tumulus…

Look on an Ordnance Survey map of Great Britain…anywhere in Great Britain…and you’ll see a tumulus marked. Tumuli (to give the plural of tumulus its correct name) are everywhere. What looks like an innocuous mound in a field could be a tumulus. Simply put, a tumulus is a mound of earth and stones concealing a grave.

They date from the Bronze Age. Archaeologists have counted at least 20,000 of them in Britain and a good share of them can be found in North Wales. Most of them appear as an upturned dish and are known as bowl barrows.

Off the B5109 near Pentraeth on Anglesey you can see a series of low tumulus, close to a standing stone. While pieces of pottery and other artefacts have been found here, their relationship with the stone (if any) remains a mystery.

Yet the greatest tumulus of all might be one found more the 3,500 feet above sea level. Snowdon, in Welsh, is Yr Wyddfa which approximately translates to ‘the barrow’ or, yes, you guessed it, the tumulus.

Legend has it that a giant called Rhitta Gawr, slain by King Arthur, is buried here. Something to think about when you reach the summit and touch the trig point!

So next time you’re taking in the splendid North Wales views and marvelling at the landscape, take a closer look. Are those lumps and bumps just hills, or something a little more interesting?

Great resources for finding interesting history in the landscapes include CadwOur Heritage site for Snowdonia (including the Llyn Peninsula), and the community-led website Megalithic Portal.

In part two of this series – coming in April – we’ll be looking at stones – standing stones and stone circles, more precisely! Next time, I explain how to capture an elusive cloud inversion to become the envy of all your Instagram friends with your amazing images!

Images courtesy: Capel Garmon burial chamber, copyright Phil Champion and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Main entrance to Tre’r Ceiri hillfort, copyright Martin Bodman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Enjoy Easter in and around Llanberis

With the Easter holidays just around the corner, we thought we’d put together an egg-cellent list of cracking places to visit, things to do and special events going on near the Royal Victoria Hotel so you and yours can have a magical Easter stay in Llanberis.

Easter Snowdonia

Electric Mountain

Nestled amongst breath-taking Snowdonian scenery, Electric Mountain offers guests the chance to tour the Dinorwig Power Station.

This is a great place for a family trip this Easter; take the fascinating tour (ages 4+) and spend time at the Visitor Centre’s gallery and climbing wall. Until 28 May, visitors can also take a break from Easter bunnies at Stuart Hill’s ‘Welsh Mountain Goats of Dinorwig Quarry’ exhibit, sure to be a hit with animal lovers young and old!

National Slate Museum

Though a visit to this museum is an enthralling experience year-round, at Easter there’s plenty of egg-stra special fun to be had!

Between 28 March and 3 April, younger guests can take part in the exciting Easter Trails, with workshops to earn eggs and prizes scattered throughout the museum and grounds. There is currently a campaign underway to get the museum listed as a World Heritage Site – so there’s never been a better time to visit.

Llanberis Lake Railway

Incredibly scenic and endlessly charming, the Llanberis Lake Railway is a superb day out for the whole family and a fantastic way to take in the area’s very best views.

The five-mile return journey, which takes around an hour on a classic little steam train, passes the magnificent Dolbadarn Castle, the twin lakes of Llyn Padarn and Llyn Peris and stops at both Gilfach Ddu (for the National Slate Museum), and Cei Llydan, a stunning picnic spot. Board the train, grab a window seat and keep your camera handy!

Easter Snowdonia

Snowdon Mountain Railway

Having reopened on 16 March, the only rack railway in Britain is ready to transport visitors up magnificent Snowdon just in time for Easter, with jaw-dropping views along the way.

Over the Easter period, visitors can journey up Snowdon on one of the new diesel trains, which depart every 30 minutes from 9am (weather and demand dependent). During March and April, the train stops at Clogwyn, around ¾ of the way up; the climb to the summit is perfect for burning off a few of those Easter chocolate calories!

Pili Palas

Undoubtedly one of the top family attractions in North Wales, Pili Palas offers an unrivalled wildlife experience.

Come rain or shine during the holidays, there’s plenty of adventures to be had in Menai Bridge. Pili Palas is renowned for its tropical butterflies, though there’s plenty more, too: from the birdhouse and bug-zone to the nature trail and ‘Meet the Animals’ sessions – you might even spot an Easter bunny or two in the farm barn!

Anglesey Sea Zoo

Whatever the weather this Easter, visit Anglesey Sea Zoo for plenty of family-friendly fun.

With more than 40 tanks, you’re guaranteed to see some of the UK’s most amazing marine life and learn more about the global conservation effort. Due to renovations, if you visit the Sea Zoo before the end of March, your ticket also entitles you to return in April and get 25% off – perfect timing for families staying in Llanberis over the Easter holidays.

Plas Newydd

This palatial National Trust property is always grand, but is particularly enchanting during Easter.

Wander the landscaped gardens in search of yellow ribbons on the Spring Nature Trail, admiring the brand-new willow figures along the way. Discover plenty more activities on Woodland Wednesdays – with a ‘humpty dumpty’ challenge on 28 March, a spring nature walk on 4 April, and a musical session on 11 April. Intrepid explorers can get out and about in the Cadbury Easter Egg Hunt (30 March – 2 April, £2 per hunt).

Easter Snowdonia

Penrhyn Castle

Spring has definitely sprung at Penrhyn Castle, where you’ll find a whole host of activities throughout the Easter period.

Learn about the garden’s honey bees on the Spring Bee Trail, search the castle on the Beekeeper Trail (both 17 March – 5 April), or help the rangers build hives on Thursdays between 29 March and 12 April. The big event at Penrhyn is undoubtedly the Cadbury Easter egg hunt, which goes on for a whopping two weeks between 24 March and 8 April!

Foel Farm Park

The Annual Easter Egg Hunt at Foel Farm Park is always a highlight in North Wales, and 2018 is no different.

The working farm is a great option for curious little ones (or big ones!) and there’s plenty to do around the farm as well as hunting eggs; trailer rides, quad biking and pony rides are just some of the activities on offer. This is also an eggs-quisite time of year to visit the on-site Chocolate Workshop to watch sweet treats being made!

Caernarfon Castle

Iconic and an incredible sight, Caernarfon Castle has long been one of Wales’s most famous landmarks.

Immerse yourself in the history and legend here on the Dragon’s Egg Easter Quest (31 March – 1 April). Explore the tunnels and lairs deep within the castle and track down the dragon to claim your Easter prize! For the grown-ups, there’s plenty of amazing history to explore here, with the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum well worth a visit.

Have we inspired you to make an Easter trip to Snowdonia? For details of special offers and exclusive rates, visit our website here.