Roger Davis shares his experiences on the Welsh stone sin this four part series.
The Criccieth stone– The most challenging stone in Britain.
I had once again become enthused for stone lifting, both from the historical research point of view as well as actually trying to tick a few more established stones off my list.
During our time together, Peter had informed me that he was working on writing a book to progress the work his father had completed on highlighting historical stones, this book to become the definitive source of information and history on all of the known challenge stones around the World, and I offered to help Peter with his research.
Amongst a few other countries (Spain, England, Pakistan & India) I elected to help Peter with research on any lifting history of stones used as a manhood test in Wales, and quickly discovered that the Welsh did indeed have a long and ancient history of stones being lifted or thrown as part of their traditional saint day celebration festivals, and that a specific name for this type of stone was“Garreg Orchest” which is literally translated as “feat stone”.
One of the first leads that were found in actually tracking down specific stones that had a lifting history was to be found in the book. “The Mask of Merlin by Donald McCormick” a biography of David Lloyd George (Prime Minister of Britain 1916 -1922), within the book the following quote was found
“Outside the Memorial Hall in thelittle town of Criccieth lay the ancient stone called Garreg Orchest, which means “try your strength” Whenever I passed the stone Lloyd George used to say, it always seemed to be addressing itself to me alone. It was that stone which prompted me to enter politics seriously”
A quick bit of Google based research informed me that Criccieth is a small seaside town onthe coast of Northwest Wales, and that the memorial hall (built in 1922) is still standing and fully operational. Further detective work on Google earth enabled me to walk past the memorial hall from the comfort of my office and a round boulder was clearly visible in the front gardens .... bingo ..... how many peoplecan say that they have uncovered an ancient lifting stone without moving from their office chair?
A phone call to one of the committee members of the memorial hall was initially met with curiositybut no confirmation of the stone as being used for anything other than a feature in the garden. Finally, I was passed on to another gentlemen from Criccieth who confirmed that the stone had a history of being a challenge for locals to try and lift, with a lot of activity between the two world wars, inhis memory it was last lifted by a gentleman by the name of Horst Bishcoff in the 1970’s and had not received any attention since then.
“How big isthe stone” I asked excitedly “do you think someone could press it over theirhead?” I was met by silence and then laughter, “I will take that as a no then” I replied.
Once they were aware of the history of this stone, the committee members of the memorial hall were very keen for it to be once again used as a “feat stone” and agreed to myself paying a visit to attempt the first lift in many years, and I planned a short walking holiday with my father to co-inside with the visit to this picturesque area of Wales for a few weeks later.
As the time drew closer, I got a bit nervous that I had not actually laid eyes on the stone and requested if I could be sent a few photo’s of the challenge ahead. I wish I had not, the photo that I received a short time later was of a massive egg-shaped granite stone, and the tape measure in the photo indicated that it was at least 24” x 18” and very thick and round.
I forwarded the picture to Peter Martin and his response was “Have you seen the size of thething; it makes the Inver stone look like a baby”. That didn’t fill me with a lot of confidence,it took me 10 years hard training to lift the Inver stone, and I consider it one of my best ever lifts, “baby” was not a word I wanted to hear in relation to it. Still the date had been set so there was no backing out now, somebodyhad to be the first to try and resurrect the stone lifting tradition in Wales and apparently that somebody was me!
Following the previous day’s enjoyable canoe trip paddling the river Wye with my Father,the ordained day of Sunday 28th August finally arrived, and we madeour way across the beautiful scenery of Snowdonia to reach Criccieth memorial hall at 10.30am. A welcome party was awaiting us, and it was really nice to meet a number of members of the memorial hall committee who had turned out tosupport the attempt and find out more about the stone that had been in front of their hall for so long, either that or they just wanted the spectacle of watching a mad Englishman attempting the impossible.
Finally, over a month after visiting the stone in cyberspace I was actually in its presence, real world, I quickly rolled the stone out of the deep hole in the ground that it had nestled itself into over the previous decades, and it was only then that its full magnitude became apparent.
To say that it is a large stone is an understatement, it is by far the largest and heaviest natural challenge stone in the British Isles and in my estimation based on previous stones I have lifted between 350 – 400lbs. It is egg shaped, and very smooth giving very little purchase for the lifter to get a hold of, and due to the sheer bulk of the thing makes the wrapping of the arms around the stone very difficult indeed.
I tried again and again to lift the stone, but just could not get a purchase on it, I was desperate to make a good lift in front of my Father who had not witnessed any of my previous stone lifting exploits but just could not manage it. Never being one to give up I experimented with many different hand holds andpositions until my forearms were raw and bloodied but finally had to admit defeat to this stone, it beat me, and I now have a scar on my right wrist as a souvenir to bear witness.
As I have managed to lift the majority of the significant challenge stones in Scotland this speaks volumes for the difficulty of this stone, which I would go as far as to say is the most challenging feat stone in the British Isles.
The story does not stop here though, as even though I had failed in my attempt I was determined to resurrect the Criccieth stone as a challenge for other lifters to try, and supported by the members of the memorial hall committee we began a PR campaign in the local press which eventually culminated in an interview on BBC radio Wales in which after giving a brief outline on the history of stonelifting in Wales I challenged “Is there a single Welshman who can lift the Criccieth stone?”
This little comment did the trick, it is always good to use a little bit of nationalism toget people motivated, two Welshmen in fact stood up to the mark and took the challenge, and on the morning of the 4th of September 2011 brothers Dafydd and Reuben Hughes quietly and without any fuss travelled to Criccieth and both managed to lift the stone clear of the ground.
Both were inspired by their father Eifion Hughes who had always told them about his lifting of a “Garreg Orchest” in Criccieth 40 years earlier, that it was the strength feat he was most proud of, and upon seeing the newspaper articles he realised it was the same stone.
Dafydd and Reuben later told me that they credit their natural strength to the time spenton the farm working with their father and wanted to try and attempt to lift the stone to honour him and his achievement. Dafydd represented Wales in rugby as a schoolboy, and Reuben spends his time building dry stone walls for a living, where his daily work involves lifting stones continuously.
Both of them just go to show just how much functional strength can be built by those raised on a life of good hard work without having to spend endless hours inside a gymnasium
This is exactly the result that we wanted when we first contacted the media, and it couldn’t have worked out better, that two local lads became the first to lift the stone again in modern times, and I have a lot of respect for them for standing up to the challenge as well as for their actual lifts.
I was very interested to see that the brothers used two different techniques for lifting the stone, and especially Reuben’s fingers linked method after standing the stone on end, last time I saw a stone lifted like this was when Peter Gudmundsson lifted the heaviest stone of Dritvic in Iceland this way.
The committee of the memorial hall are to be commended also for fully embracing thehistory and challenge of this stone and making it freely available, they have gone further and made the lifting of this feat stone part of their web site, set an annual stone lifting competition to be held on St David’s day and instigated a guest book for all future lifts to be recorded for posterity. The website can be found at www.cricciethmemorialhall.com
All lift attempts are to be authorised through the Guardian of the stone with a lift request form to be completed, all lifters are respectfully requested to follow these procedures to ensure the continued good grace of the memorial hall committee members.
To be sure of the actual challenge of the stone, Trevor had it officially weighed on haulage truck scales, and it weighed in at 177.5kg (391lbs) right at the top end of my estimation, once again establishing its premier status in the British Isles, and I make another challenge to the stone lifting community.
Is there a man in the World who can stand up with this stone?
This is still not the end of the journey though, further research, further trips and subsequent contacts from the extensive media coverage have highlighted a further seven historical feat stones that I am currently visiting and researching for Peter’s forthcoming book .... But that is another story.
Roger Davis- 2011