How to read our historic landscape – part two

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, we return to the fine art of reading the historic landscape – something that will bring a whole new dimension to your rambles…

If you missed part one of this blog, click here to read it now.

It’s easy to be swept away by North Wales’s beautiful landscapes, but at the same time it’s easy to miss its subtleties. 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 exploring 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 second of three posts, we’ll share with you the history behind the landscapes – fascinating stones to look out for while enjoying the great outdoors here in North Wales.

Stone Circles of North Wales

Let’s get one thing straight – there are no Stonehenge-like stone circles in North Wales! Even so, our stone circles have their own mystique, not least because of their locations. We’ll reveal where the best examples are later on.

First, some facts. Strictly speaking, stone circles are not the same as henges, despite the most famous stone circle in the world taking this name.

Neolithic henges feature a ring bank and ditch, but with the ditch inside the bank rather than outside. The henges themselves sometimes – but far from always – included timber or stone circles, yet to make matters more confusing, not all stone circles are found inside a henge.

We still don’t really know their purpose, but the most commonly held belief is that stone circles (and henges) may have held ritualistic or even astronomical purposes. In the case of North Wales’s stone circles, it’s tempting to believe the latter, given their location on high hills. Yet stone circles and henges in other parts of Great Britain are also found on low lying areas.

One of the best examples of a stone circle is near Llandrillo in Denbighshire. High on Moel Ty-Uchaf, 440 metres above sea level, is a well-preserved ring of 41 stones on the summit. It is about 16 metres across and archaeologists believe it once consisted of a ring bank of stone with a surrounding kerb. At some point the centre of the cairn was filled with stones to form a level platform. Its purpose is not known, but was likely a place for rituals or even cremations.

To find it, park in Llandrillo village and follow the minor road by the cenotaph out of the village. This becomes a track up onto the hillside. Another approach is via a minor lane opposite Hendwr caravan site off the B4401. Where the road forks by Melin y Glyn, park here and walk up the lane to the right. Don’t be tempted to drive further – there’s nowhere to park.

Another stone circle is located in an even wilder spot. Bryn Cader Faner takes some finding; even driving as far as you can is not for nervous drivers or wider vehicles. Leave the A496 Harlech road at Talsarnau and head for the hamlet of Eisingrug. Take the sharp left – made awkward by massive stone walls – and head uphill. There’s a small parking area at the top and an honesty box for you to say thank you to the farmer for parking on his land. Follow the track which first swings south, then turn left and walk north east towards Nant Pasgan.

After about a mile and a half you’ll find Bryn Cader Faner, a stone circle known as the Welsh Crown of Thorns. This is because of the way its 15 stones lean outwards. Some people regard Bryn Cader Faner as the most beautiful Bronze Age monument in Britain. It’s certainly photogenic and well worth the effort to reach it.

Thankfully, Meini Hirion (Druid’s Circle) stone circle in the hills above Penmaenmawr is a little easier to reach. You’ll still need your walking boots and plenty of energy to walk up the hill, with the shortest route from Graiglwyd Farm (though there’s no room here to leave a car). A longer walk in (but more fun) is from Mountain Lane; drive as far as the steep hairpin, where the surfaced road turns to track, and park by the twin stone turrets. The views are wonderful all the way. Walk up and join the North Wales Coast Path heading west.

Meini Hirion features 30 stones, 11 of them standing, about 35 metres in diameter. When the site was excavated in the 1950s it revealed the capstone of a cist, or burial chamber, inside which was a food vessel that contained the cremated bones of a child. This may sound grisly but is not uncommon – children’s remains point to spiritual beliefs in youth and regeneration.

Meini Hirion is just one of a cluster of stone circles (most barely recognisable as such), cairns and standing stones. Follow the route of the North Wales Coast path west and – with a little imagination – you can see this part of the world must have been important during the Bronze Age. See if you can find another stone circle – a small cluster of just five stones known bizarrely as Circle 275.

A boulder or a standing stone?

We have lots of both in North Wales! So while it might be obvious that the huge stone in a field next to the Black Lion pub, Llanfaethlu, is a standing stone (visible from the A5025), what about those boulders in a hedge off the main road between Brynsiencyn and Dwyran? Gate posts? No, they’re standing stones too – one of which is the tallest in Wales.

So before we explore some of North Wales’s best examples, what are standing stones? Also known as menhirs, they are stones set into the ground by Neolithic people. They date from 4,000 BC to 1,500 BC. We know very little about them but it is generally thought they had both social and ceremonial or religious uses.

They’re found all over Great Britain but there are hundreds across North Wales. Some are obvious, some less so. Some occupy clear vantage points on higher ground while many more seem to exist in certain areas, in clusters, often close to cromlechs or other neolithic remains. This makes sense, showing how people lived in social communities with unpopulated spaces between.

Where are North Wales’s best standing stones? Anglesey’s Bryn Gwyn stones are huge, but easy to miss. Park in the lay-by signed for Castell Bryn Gwyn off the A4080 between Brynsiencyn and Dwyran. Once you’ve explored Castell Bryn Gwyn, which may itself have once housed a stone circle, head back to Bryn Gwyn Bach Farm through fields and follow the public right of way to the stones, which are almost 4 metres in height.

There are so many more standing stones on Anglesey that it’s not practical to describe them all. Tre-Gwehelydd near Llantrisant, has been stapled together with metal brackets yet remains a terrific example, complete with an information board. Bodfeddan is an inscribed stone just off the A4080 between the A55 and Rhosneigr. It also has a cup mark. Bryn Dyfrydog off the B5111 road between Llanerchymedd to Amlwch road is almost square, while Bodewryd, also know as Maen Pres (brass stone), is far more pointed. A legend says that if you cut into the ground around its shadow at a certain time of the day then you will discover treasure buried in a brass container.

Another standing stone ‘hot spot’ is the Llyn Peninsula. At more than two-and-a-half metres tall, Betws Fawr is one of the tallest. Moel Gwynus up towards Morfa Nefyn is part of an interesting cluster of stones. Sadly, many mountainous areas of Snowdonia – with the exception of the northern Carneddau – have fewer stones. Perhaps it was too harsh there even for ancient peoples! Even so, there’s a lovely example, Parc-y-Gleision, off the upland road between Llanberis and Llanrug villages.

Go explore!

One of the best resources for finding ancient remains such as stone circles and standing stone is the community-driven Megalithic Portal. Be aware that descriptions of access and some cases condition of sites may be a little out of date – so why not post your own update here, after you’ve visited?

Another great resource is the Our Heritage website which describes sites across Snowdonia.

In part three of this series – coming in July – we’ll be looking for other tell tale signs of our ancestors’ influence on the landscape, including settlements, roads, lanes and paths.

Images courtesy: Moel Ty Uchaf by Espresso Addict, CC BY-SA 2.0. Bryn Cader Faner by Rudi Winter via Wikimedia Commons.

The Royal Victoria Hotel: a short history

If you’re reading this blog, more than likely you already know about the Royal Victoria Hotel and what makes it such a treasured landmark in Llanberis. But what you might not know is the fascinating history around this amazing place that makes it a top choice for a stay in North Wales. Read on to find out more…

With 30 acres of beautiful gardens and a location between the twin lakes of Llanberis, the hotel is exceptionally scenic.

The area the hotel was built on was called Dolbadarn, or Padarn’s Meadow, after a saint from the 6th century who chose the area to live for its tranquillity. In fact, it has been inhabited since around the year 3000 BC; standing stones from this time still sit atop the hill behind the hotel. History buffs will be in their element here, as there are numerous sites and relics scattered across the landscape from centuries past – not least the ruins of Dolbadarn Castle, situated in the hotel grounds, which likely predates Llywelyn Fawr’s death in 1240.

Origins of the hotel

In 1830, plans were drawn up for a ‘dwelling inn’ to sit close by Dolbadarn Castle, with the site to include stables, coach houses, greenhouses, chamber rooms, attic rooms and lounges. The hotel was built by Thomas Assheton Smith, who also owned the Dinowig slate quarries. Although the quarries have long since ceased production, signs of the workmen and their legacy can still be viewed at the Electric Mountain and National Slate Museum, both in Llanberis.

As tourism to North Wales increased, the Royal Victoria Hotel too grew in popularity. The opening of the road through the Llanberis Pass in 1831 meant more visitors were able to visit the area to see the slate industry and to climb Snowdon.

In 1832, Princess Victoria (later to become Queen) embarked on a visit to North Wales. Although she was too ill to journey to Llanberis herself, her royal party did in fact visit this very hotel.

Adventurous Victorian visitors

By the late 1840s visitors were flocking to Snowdonia and Snowdon, heading to the summit either by foot or with a guide and pony. Wooden buildings with sleeping quarters and food were erected at the top of the mountain to provide a place to stay for those visitors who had made the steep climb – one of these was owned by the Royal Victoria Hotel.

Towards the end of 1894 the hotel was taken over by the Snowdon Mountain Tram Road & Hotels Company, that also funded the Snowdon Mountain Railway. The directors of the company threw a grand banquet at the hotel to celebrate. 200 distinguished guests dined on a six-course meal that included Snowdon Pudding, which is still a famous and beloved item served at the hotel to this day.

With such a prestigious location so close to Snowdon and nestled between Llyn Padarn and Llyn Peris, the Royal Victoria Hotel went from strength to strength, attracting visitors from across the United Kingdom and beyond.

More secrets of Snowdonia

The hotel goes from strength to strength

By the 1890s visitors to the hotel found 38 guestrooms, a bar, parlour, more than a dozen sitting rooms, a spacious coffee room, ladies drawing room and a billiards room. Among the other facilities were a laundry, a dairy, stables for around 30 horses and cellars for wine, beers and spirits.

Leisure facilities were added to enhance the hotel’s spectacular surroundings. There were six stage coaches that transported guests to and from the hotel each day, and carriages and boats could be hired for sightseeing excursions.

By 1919, the hotel was also managing a 9-hole golf course located between the hotel and Llanberis station. Today, the car park opposite the mountain railway is still managed by the Royal Victoria, and used to be tennis courts.

In 1996, renovations took place at the Snowdon station. In a secret cavity hidden inside a wall, old ledgers and records were found detailing the guests who stayed at the hotel between 1882 and 1896. Among the names, researchers found the signature of one William Ewart Gladstone, former Prime Minister.

The hotel today

Today, of course, the hotel is as popular and scenic as ever. Visitors from across the globe come to North Wales for adventure, scenery and plenty of culture, and the Royal Victoria’s proximity to many of  the region’s best attractions makes it a fabulous place to stay. The hotel is also a sumptuous wedding venue, with sprawling Victorian gardens and the Snowdonia Moutain Range as a backdrop for photos.

For over 100 years, the Royal Victoria Hotel has been a fixture and landmark in Llanberis. To add your name in the guestbook – alongside a former Prime Minister and the future Queen Victoria’s party! – book a stay and fall in love with Llanberis.

Images courtesy: Royal Victoria Hotel in the snow 2017 by Sevy. Snowdon Summit c. 1880 courtesy of the National Media Museum.