On our recent trip to the Isle of Anglesey, or Ynys Môn in Welsh, we were amazed by the number of well preserved ancient historical sites, some dating back thousands of years.
The sites are managed by Cadw, the Welsh government’s heritage service, and most are free to visit, and only a short walk from main roads.
Three of them are close to the village of Moelfre on the island’s east coast.
The first we visited was the Lligwy burial chamber, a prehistoric, stone-built pit, covered with a 25-tonne capstone. The chamber dates back over 3000 years to the New Stone Age (or the Neolithic period) and it was thought that the enormous covering stone was levered up while the smaller supporting stones were added in a ring around the edge of the pit. The tomb was excavated in 1908 to reveal the bones of between 15 and 30 people, animals, shells, flint tools and pottery.
The site was fenced off when we visited, giving a limited view of the inside of the chamber but we were able to marvel at the ingenuity of the people who built it with so few tools at their disposal.
The second site we visited took my breath away. A short walk through a cow-filled field and up through a small patch of woodland reveals the most impressive set of stone ruins.
Din Lligwy is the remains of a village created by the Britons during the time of the Roman occupation of Great Britain during the AD40s. It was our first opportunity to discover exactly how the local Britons were living when the Romans arrived and what they would have found here. Having visited many Roman sites in Italy and at Hadrian’s Wall, it is easy to get a sense of the way that innovative and technologically advanced Roman building altered the landscape of every country they colonised. It is more difficult to imagine the ways of life of the people who came before.
The site contains the well-preserved ruins of a series of buildings, including round houses, store houses and forge. Most of the lower sections of the walls of all of the buildings are present, giving an excellent idea of the scale of the dwellings and, as the site is fully accessible a real insight into what it would have been like to live in the village 2000 years ago. Information boards give further details and sketches of what the buildings would have looked like, including the timber-framed roofs and straw thatching.
The whole site was once enclosed by a high stone wall, the remains of which are also visible, and the elevation of the site meant it had a wonderful view out to sea, to the surrounding lands and potential invaders. The effort and skill of the builders is apparent in the collection, carving and positioning of the variously sized stones used at the site. The beauty of the traditional round dwelling houses in comparison to the oblong Roman-style store houses was also clear.
The third site near Moelfre, Capel Lligwy, is the ruins of a 12th century chapel which used to serve the local farming community. The chapel stands in a field and is very much the property of the resident cows, who obviously used it as a shelter from the wind. An information board shows how the tiny chapel would have been modestly decorated, with standing room only, and would have served as an outpost of a larger village church. During our visit we saw a number of people refused entry by the cows who obviously took exception to the colour of their anoraks!
The fourth site was another surprise as we had seen so little publicity that we were not expecting such an impressive and interactive experience.
Bryn Celli Ddu, meaning ‘Mound in the Dark Grove’, is another Stone Age burial site, but at 5000 year old is one of the most ancient manmade sites in Great Britain. It is a stone chamber covered with mounded earth and grass and with an entrance passageway so it is actually possible to walk inside.
From the small, unprepossessing car park, sign boards explain the features of the site and point the way across the road and down a well marked path between hedgerows and over a small stream. The site is once again in the sectioned-off corner of a farmer’s field.
The chamber itself is incredible, encircled by smaller stones and covered by turf so that ut blends in with the surrounding landscape and appears as just a small hillock.
One of the most unbelievable aspects of the site, aside from its construction all those millennia ago, is that it is oriented so that the midday sun during the summer solstice would shine straight through the entrance passageway and light up the chamber within. Unfortunately, our visit did not coincide with this once yearly event, but the chamber is inspiringly atmospheric even on a cloudy, wet day.
As we walked inside the chamber, ducking to avoid the massive covering stones over our heads, the colour of the warm stones and the filtering of the light by the two small openings created a surreal, magical ambience. The entrance passageway featured a stone bench, where the dead would have been placed, leading through to the main chamber, which it is believed would have been used for offerings. Indeed, on our visit various items had been left, including crab apples, small pebbles, feathers and grasses, collected from the local area, and the chamber smelled strongly of incense, giving the impression that regular visitors still made pilgrimages to the site. I felt that I would probably be one of them had I lived nearer.
Other free attractions we visited included a walk up Holyhead Mountain, on Anglesey’s smaller sister Holy Island, accessible over a causeway to the northwest. It is free to park in the RSPB reserve carpark and there is open access to the mountain, which at over 700ft is the highest point on either island. The mountain is covered in wildflowers and, during our visit in early September, was a sea of purples and yellows. It has views out to sea and down to the lighthouse at South Stack and on a clear day, back across the island. In Spring and early Summer, it is possible to see nesting sea birds on the cliffs from the RSPB view point nearby.
There are miles of sandy beaches on Anglesey and we visited Red Wharf Bay, on the east coast of the island, for a walk along the pretty beach and the heritage coastal path.
From all over the south of the island it is possible to see the mountains of Snowdonia over on the Welsh mainland and on a clear day it is well worth a trip along the A4080 road where there is free parking at a view point overlooking the Menai Strait, the water between the island and the mainland. From here, the two historic bridges, the Menai Bridge and the Britannia Bridge, and the mountains beyond make for a spectacular panoramic view.
There are many other ancient sites on Anglesey and our short trip to the island did not allow time to see them all but our visit there made a lasting impression and we will certainly return.