Part 2 of the series of article from Roger on stone lifting in Wales
Ysgol Esceifiog, Bodedern, Geraint Sone, Penmaenmawr
The recent research that I had completed on the Welsh “Garreg Orchest” (feat stones) and appeal for further information on BBC Radio Wales was beginning to pay dividends, with a number of individuals contacting me to tell of stones at Gaerwen and Bodedern in Anglesey and a stone just over the bridge from Anglesey in Penmaenmawr.
Armed with this information I made some investigative phone calls to obtain permission to visit the stones and arranged another stone lifting road trip with my friend Peter Martin.
A few weeks later on the 27th of November 2011 I met up with Peter at a public house in Telford where we were staying for the night before completing the journey into Wales, and over pints of beer and good pub food we excitedly discussed the progress we had made with our respective research and the forthcoming journey into Wales.
The next morning was bright and clear, and as I got changed into my “lucky” stone lifting garb (Green combat trousers, T-shirt and shirt) I got the feeling in my stomach that always preceded a stone lifting trip, one of excitement, nervousness and readiness for battle (hence the combat cloths). It feels like going on a blind date, archaeological dig and boxing match all at the same time, you want to uncover and record the history and atmosphere of these lifting stones but are aware that you will have a battle on your hands to lift them as well. That is the best way I can describe it, rushing to a fight in a secret location when you don’t know the size or strength of your adversary.
After a few hours of driving along the A5 we had made our way through North West Wales and were approaching the island of Anglesey (Ynys Mon in Welsh), which for those who don’t know their history is a large island off the North coast of Wales and location of the last stand of the Celtic tribes and Druids of Britain when the Roman army invaded in AD60, slaughtered many of the tribesmen and destroyed the sacred groves before having to retreat to contend with the uprising of Boadicea in the South of England.
We crossed the historical Menai suspension bridge, the first one being built by Thomas Telford in 1826, and were in Anglesey, an island I had always wanted to visit, and the anticipation grew even higher as we headed Northwest to reach our first location.
Our first stop was at the “Ysgol Esceifiog” (Esceifiog school) in Garwen where a smooth round stone weighing 96kg has been situated in the porch of the school since it was built in 1981, and prior to that at the old Victorian school opposite since 1938. Many hundreds of school children have passed this stone every day without knowing the very interesting history behind it.
Tradition states that originally the stone was used by local labourers at a nearby farm to settle disputes, with a competition being held to see who could lift the stone over the farm wall, back and forth it would go with the person whose strength failed first being the loser. Sometime later four school children decided that they liked the look of the stone, and in 1938 they transported it some four miles in a wheelbarrow to sit outside the old school at Esceifiog, only being moved to be placed outside the new school where it now resides.
One such pupil who had passed this stone every school day was local man Rhodri Thomas who had informed me about the stone following my previous appeal for information. Not only did Rhodri make the relevant contacts for me, but he actually had the stone weighed to give an official historical weight for the book, and also became the first man in living memory to lift the stone in the process.
Peter had suggested that it would be a good thing to speak in the school assembly about the “Garreg Orchest” to the school children, and we told them a little about the stone lifting traditions around the world, more relevantly the recently discovered culture in Wales and the history of the stone outside of their school. “Who thinks I can lift the stone?” I asked the children, about half of them put up their hands, and I was not sure whether that was a vote of confidence or not.
The children were given a small break from lessons to witness the spectacle, and I must admit to feeling slightly nervous as 50 pairs of small eyes watched me roll the stone out of the porch and onto some rubber matting, I knew it was not particularly heavy, but it was very, very smooth almost mirror like from hundreds of small hands rubbing it to a polish.
A little chalk and a good squeeze managed to overcome this obstacle and I managed to lift first to chest and then to shoulder only to be hit by a wave of cheers, squeals and applause from the children, wow, they were really pleased to see the lift, and I wished that I could have captured that moment and bottled it.
A solution was to perform the lift again, this time with the children standing behind me so that they would be in the photograph; this was done and remains one of my most treasured pictures. It would be great if this stuck in the mind of the children and one day when they are grown up someone who witnessed the feat would also duplicate it and so carry on the tradition.
We then had tea and biscuits with headmaster Rhys Roberts and some of the teachers where Rhys told us that he was happy for other lifters to visit and lift the stone in front of the children, and I promised to send a guest book to record the history of attempted lifts.
The next stop was at Presaddfed Hall, which is home to a 72kg smooth round stone that has a long history of traditional use during the Saint Day celebrations in the village of Bodedern before the first world war and then subsequently at the revived celebrations that were participated in between 1981 and 2004.
Myself and Peter arrived at the 18th century hall, (which is now a shooting and fishing estate), and were warmly greeted by the staff who were curious to see what all the fuss about the stone was about, not really knowing of its history and cultural significance.
The stone is stored by the right-hand side of the main entrance to the hall and may be rolled forwards onto the gravel path for a safe lifting attempt.
At 72kg It is relatively light as far as lifting stones go, the smoothness being the main obstacle to overcome, it is possible that this stone was used as a throwing stone, but this would have to be a forwards two hands push or putt from shoulder, the weight being prohibitive for a throw behind the head as practised with some of the lighter Welsh stones.
I managed to lift to the shoulder with relative ease, and then set my goal on pressing the stone overhead which is always a challenge on an unevenly balanced object, and also a fair degree of lean back has to be employed just to rest the stone on the chest.
My pressing strength was way down on its best, so I decided to employ a push press technique to try and get the stone overhead, which saw the stone reach three quarters of the way to lock out before stalling and coming back down, no lift, just not strong enough, but I am sure that a lot of lifters reading this article could do repetitions with the stone and should make the journey to lay down a mark.
This is a great stone to visit, and for some lifters who are just beginning the stone lifting journey and could not yet meet the challenge of the Inver stone and other ponderous lifting stones it offers an opportunity to travel to a historically recorded stone with a long cultural tradition of people testing their strength down through the years and to make their best attempt add to the legend.
Before our final testing stone of the day, and probably the most challenging, we had a brief respite to recover as we had arranged to meet up with Rhodri Thomas at a local pub just over the Bridge back into Wales in Bangor where Peter kindly bought me a pint of beer and a steak and ale pie as reward for my exertions whilst we awaited Rhodri’s arrival.
I must admit that the beer, good food and early start soon had me gently nodding, before a phone call from Rhodri informed me that he was in the pub car park and had an object in the back of his truck to show me. Peter and I left the pub, which overlooks the historic Menai bridge and were met by a big swarthy Welshman with a warm smile and a firm handshake, fresh from his work as a builder working in Bangor town centre. It was great to meet up with Rhodri at last, as we had exchanged numerous phone calls and e-mails as he made the contacts for me to lift at Gaerwen and Bodedern, and we were soon talking about stones and the exploits of the day.
Rhodri took me to the back of his pickup truck where he had a stone wedged between all of the building materials and lifting it out, he explained that this 86kg stone was given to him by a good friend of his “Geraint” who was very interested in stone lifting history and used the stone to keep his strength up into later age. Unfortunately, he died of cancer recently, and it passed to Rhodri to be the guardian of the stone, something Rhodri takes very seriously, and it was with some emotion that he lifted the stone to his shoulder and then allowed me to do the same in memory of his friend.
It was then that it occurred to me that the real legacy of stone lifting history is as much about the people who have lifted them as about the stones themselves, and they are forever linked, a part of that spirit of emotion, be it exertion, exaltation or disappointment enters the stone and stays there forever. That is why it is so important to me to record the history of these stones and to set up guest books and historical records wherever I can.
If you learn about the people who have lifted a stone then you get to know them on the most basic and primitive level, and understand what it took them to overcome this particular challenge, they may be long gone, but that moment remains like an echo fading into space and time, with just a cold grey stone remaining as the emotionless witness, and the only way to hear the echo is to lift.
The fourth stone of the day was to be the most challenging; another e-mail from an individual who had read one of the newspaper articles of previous Wales trips informed me that in the Eden Hall sensory gardens in Penmaenmawr rests a ponderous round stone that was used by the local quarry men as a test of strength from the mid 1800’s and before.
One of the local traditions was that on “rent day” when the tenants of the area paid their dues to the Denbighshire family at Pendyffryn Hall a day of festivities was had, which included a “tea”, music, drinking and games, one of which was the lifting of the Garreg Camp or feat stone, this probably being a tradition from an earlier time and the saint day festivals
It is recorded that two individuals managed to lift the stone, which was described as over two hundred weights (224lbs) above their heads, those being Charles Henry Darbishire (1844 – 1929) the manager and subsequent owner of the estate and quarry and Lancashire born Isaac Robinson his bailiff.
The Garreg Camp was moved from Pendyffryn Hall to the Eden Hall sensory gardens belonging to Conwy County council in 1976 with a sign placed above commemorating the rich history of this stone, and there it sat undisturbed whilst the sign faded to blank.
Some 35 years later Peter and I arrived to find two local council grounds men hard at work tending the garden, and after locating the position of the stone near the ornate wrought iron gates and entrance to the gardens, we asked permission to lift the stone, and this was granted.
The first task was to remove the stone from the brickwork nest it has been placed in all those years ago and roll it down the flower bed onto more level terrain. This was no easy task and served as a suitable warm up for the main event.
Once on level ground the magnitude of the stone could be ascertained, and it certainly looked daunting, very round, very smooth with just a few small, raised areas and in my opinion all of 120kg and very similar in shape, weight and surface to the famed Inver stone in Scotland.
The first few attempts did not afford any good purchase, but after further examination of the stone a slight ridge was located which allowed a good grip and subsequent lift, although I did not feel that I had fully straightened up with the stone.
A second attempt was much better, and as I had positioned the stone so that its thinnest dimensions were at the front this enabled me to stand fully upright to satisfaction, it was a very difficult lift for me, and in my opinion as challenging as the Inver stone, and I was just as happy to have lifted it as I was with my Inver stone lift five years previous
Follow the successful lift the stone was rolled back up hill and into its bed to rest once again, it was quite a job to return the stone to its position, and I would challenge that if you do not think you can put it back then do not try to lift it.
Photos were taken with the somewhat startled gardeners, and then myself and Peter began our long journeys back to our respective homes, Peter could be forgiven for gently snoring as he took 40 winks during the journey back to Telford, he still had a 5 hour journey onwards to Scotland and would not be home before midnight.
We said our farewells outside the same pub we had stayed at just the night before, and knew that we had shared something special once again, not only for a friendship renewed and new friendships made, but we were aware that we had visited and lifted stones that were in danger of being forgotten forever, and with them the long line of individuals who had lifted them in the past, if the stones are forgotten then the echo fades forever. Peter and I were happy that we had added our voices to the echo and hoped that this account will lead to others making similar visits and keeping the traditions alive.
“Until the next time” we said as we shook hands in farewell, and I got that feeling in my stomach again, knowing that there were plenty more trips to come, more stones to discover and more lifts to be made, and life just does not get any better than that.
Roger Davis - 2011