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Weekend Break with Welsh Stones - Roger Davis

· Wales

The fourth and final submission from Roger Davis covering his stories from Wales

Efenechtyd, Llanwddyn, Ysbyty Ifan & St Fagans. 

Following on from the discovery of a Garreg Orchest (feat stone) in Criccieth, I continued my research into the tradition of lifting stones in Wales for the stone lifting book that I am working on and made some further advancements. An early discovery was from the book “Old stone crosses of the Vale of Clwyd and its neighbouring parishes” by Reverend Elias Owen 1886 where the following quote was uncovered  

There is a relic of these ancient games called Y Maen Camp, or feat stone, in the churchyard of Efenechtyd. It is a ponderous boulder stone, weighing 101 lbs. The camp, or feat, was to lift this stone and throw it over the head backwards, and he was the hero who could throw this huge stone the furthest. Trials of strength and dexterity with this stone at Efenechtyd took place on the north side of the churchyard, where there are to this day but few graves.  The hero of the parish was the man who excelled all others in personal prowess, and when bravery was accompanied with nobleness of conduct, the expert pugilist was the admired of men and maidens; but he had to pay dearly for his renown. He was henceforth the parish champion, and on all fitting occasions upon him was placed the responsibility of vindicating the honour of the parish. 

In stark contrast to the ponderous mass of the Criccieth stone, here was a much lighter stone, but one that was contested through throwing rather than lifting and using the very difficult method of throwing behind the head, it was also referred to as a Maen Camp, another translation from the Welsh also meaning feat stone. 

A phone call to the local Reverend of the parish church was made and I was delighted to find that although the reference was over 100 years ago this stone is still present inside the church and that its history as a “feat stone” to be thrown on the Saint Day (Gwylmabsant) was well known although it had not been used as such for a long time. 

By a fortunate co-incidence the Reverend and local church committee members had recently expressed a desire to resurrect the ancient custom of Gwylmabsant and wanted to include the feat stone within these festivities, the first time in many years, and I was given an invite to participate on the 25th September 2010. 

It was at this point that I invited my wife to join me on a romantic trip into North Wales, she was pleased that we could have a bit of quality time together, a few days later I slowly introduced to the itinerary a few visits to stones, and as you can imagine, she was absolutely delighted! 

A few weeks later and following a reasonably normal day visiting a working Victorian village in Ironbridge we found ourselves outside the Church of St Wddyn’s in Llanwddyn, Powys, Mid-Wales, where further research had discovered the existence of another throwing stone. 

This one had a very ancient history with the earliest reference I could find of a recorded feat stone in Wales (Bygones relating to Wales and the Border Counties 1892), where an account is given of a smooth round stone having its weight engraved of seventy-five and a half pounds and the initials I.I, probably meaning the name of the owner. The throwing of this stone was closely linked to an individual called Llewelyn Thomas from the nearby village of Llanmawddwy who reportedly threw this stone some 15 yards (45 feet) behind his head and gained for himself the title of “Llewelyn the Great”. So valued was his prowess at stone throwing that he was often enlisted by various villages in the locality to represent them in the stone throwing games where victory would be ensured. From that point on when any individual achieved an especially impressive distance with the feat stone it was described as “throwing a Llewelyn” As Llewelyn reportedly died in 1807, this was therefore a feat stone that had an active history going back at least into the 1700’s. 

It was drizzling pretty hard as we pulled up to the church, and we were on our own as we entered the dark interior, and as I had been told by the local Reverend the stone was to be found at the front of the church by the chancellery arch. It was a lovely smooth stone, very dark blue black in colour and had seventy-five and a half pounds engraved on the front in very ornate flowing script and the initials I.I on the back.  

I had not obtained permission to throw this stone, and knew that I really shouldn’t, but I just couldn’t help myself and took the stone outside in the drizzle to take some clearer pictures. In the outside light I got some nice clear pictures of the stone, and then decided that I would feel the weight of it. Although 75 pounds is obviously very light for a lifting or pressing stone, it is surprisingly heavy when you are trying to swing it between your legs and throw behind your head, the closest weightlifting movement I can think of being a heavy two hands kettle bell swing, with the lack of handle making it even more difficult. I swung between legs once, twice, and then tried to throw upwards and backwards, extending as much as I could as per a snatch lift, the stone cleared my head and landed about 6 feet behind me. I was going to try again, but the stone was now very slippery from the wet grass, and I thought better of it. 

Very gingerly and carefully I replaced the stone to its venerated position in the church, wondering how long it had been since the stone had last flown through the air. 

The attempt did open a lot of doubt in my mind about the historical claims that it was thrown 45 feet, and whilst not claiming to be a World class highland games proponent I have a background in competitive weightlifting and would seriously challenge that this stone was ever throw 7 times the distance I managed by even the strongest individual. 

At a recent highland games event World Champion Sean Betz threw a 75lb stone forwards (an easier and more efficient technique) some 16 feet, less than a third of the distance claimed for Llewellyn 

It is not my intention to disrespect the memory and legends of Llewellyn and other historical Welsh strongmen, but in my opinion the throws recorded are akin to claiming a 4 second 100 meters sprint record for someone who lived 200 years ago, and highly unrealistic. Possibly an original and still very impressive throw of 15 feet morphed into 15 yards through the many telling of the tale over the hundreds of years, who knows. 

Following a good sleep in a delightful Bed and Breakfast and a lovely evening meal, my wife and I found ourselves in search of the next stone on a nice bright Sunday morning. 

This stone was very different from the other two, and did not have any historical references in literature, rather it was part of the local folk culture of the village of Ysbyty Ifan in Conwy, North-Wales , where a Garreg Orchest was highlighted on the local village web site ( as part of their history, from the pictures it looked a big slab of a lifting stone similar to the Husafell stone in Iceland, but size was difficult to ascertain. 

We were met by a very friendly lady, Mairwen Davies, painting the outside of the farm cottage who informed us that Gwyn was not there, was currently tending the sheep in the fields, and had taken the request from a mad Englishmen to come all the way to Wales to lift a stone as nothing more than a joke, but just as this was spoken a 4 x4 vehicle came down the lane and we were met by a very surprised and perplexed Gwyn, who informed us that he would be delighted to take us to see the stone. 

We had a most interesting 10-minute drive in the 4 x 4 with my wife bouncing about on my lap, as we drove down a number of uneven lanes, through gates and finally over the very sodden fields to arrive at the spot where the Ysbyty Ifan stone resided, it would have been impossible to find without our guide. It was a very large slab of a stone, much bigger than it looked on the village web site, and although not quite as thick as the Husafell stone it had all of its proportions and in my estimation weighed all of 300lbs, after a little bit of rubbing away of lichen and mud a date of 1868  the number 17 and possibly some initials could just about be made out on the stone, what historic event this marked could only  be guessed at, it may even have been a grave stone, but my thought is that this marked the first person to lift the stone, I could be wrong, and we will never know.  

It was very difficult just to stand this stone upright and try and towel all of the mud from its underside, and I knew that it would be quite a challenge to lift. I have never been any good at levering stones up in the crook of my arms preferring instead to lift from between the legs, and this was the method I used. 

After several failed attempts, struggling to get a grip on the slippery underside, I finally managed to lift the stone from the floor, but it was just too wide to position on my lap, so back down it came, this being my only successful lift although I made many more attempts 

Gwyn did not know much about the history of the stone, other than that his father had told him it was a Garreg Orchest, and his father before that, and although neither of them had even seen it lifted, they dutifully rolled the stone to a new position every 6 months to save it from sinking into the soft Welsh turf and disappearing forever, how is that for dedication to history. 

The position of the stone is mid way the two villages of Ysbyty Ifan and Penmachno and on the route of a sheep drovers road with local tradition suggesting that the stone may have been used to settle disputes or as a challenge between the two villages, with one legend claiming that the villagers took turns to carry the stone between the Churches of each village (some 4 miles), and whatever village Church it finally ended up at was the winner. Another legend claims that a local sheep farmer managed to press the stone above his head. Once again, I say that as I have felt the enormity of the stone in reality I take both of these legends with a large pinch of salt. 

We were then invited back into the farmhouse by Mairwen Davies for tea and biscuits, and I discussed with them the Brotherhood of Stone and showed them some of the other stones that I had visited as featured in my “of stones and strength” book which now resembles a scrapbook with photos and signatures of the stones and people I have met on every page. 

They were very excited at the prospect of other lifters coming to try and lift the Garreg Orchest, were more than happy for them to contact them directly (01690770278 to gain permission, Gwyn Davies delighted to receive the title of “guardian of the stone”, and I promised to send them a visitors book to record all future attempts. 

We met the local Reverend and Church committee members outside of the picturesque Church of St Michael and all Angels in Efenechtyd as they were setting up a table with light refreshments and jugs of Pimm’s and lemonade (a very British tradition) , with a number of the local residents arriving to take part in the celebrations. 

After a very interesting church service outlining the Gwylmabsant customs the entire congregation got involved in the tradition with the youngsters rolling the stone from the church into position on the north side of the churchyard, and blowing and shaking of instruments to “wake the saint” 

It was fantastic to be part of this celebration and after the church service I managed to find a clear space in the North side of the churchyard, although this was difficult as the North side had filled up considerably over recent years with burial plots but after looking for an alternative spot a small mound proved an ideal place to stand, and a throw towards the surrounding hedge ensured that the ancient stone monuments were not in danger. 

 I managed to throw the stone backwards over my head some 3 feet as described in the book, although this is a very awkward way to throw a stone, and even a relatively light stone of 101lbs becomes very difficult to throw this way.  I also made a forwards throw which was more dramatic as the stone travelled much further through the air, landing 11ft 6 inches away from the mound. 

Another member of the village managed to lift the stone overhead also, and we both signed the visitor book set up for this purpose, which along with the participation by the young children made me really pleased to see that it was not about me lifting a stone, but about a village remembering its traditions, and long may they continue”. 

Once again, the Church committee were very excited about others coming to throw their stone, and the guardian of the stone, Marion Henshaw is happy to be contacted (01824705790 to gain permission 

I was just glad that I had got away with it, don’t think I will be pushing my luck and suggesting any stone visits on our forthcoming anniversary break though, they may be a step too far. 

This was the end of the trip, but not the end of visiting the Welsh stones, as a few weeks later I made a visit to St Fagan’s folk museum in Cardiff to visit Dr Emma Lille, the curator of the museum and to visit a Garreg Orchest that had been in storage since 1981 when it was donated to the museum by a J.R Jones.  

The records stated that this stone had been used by the labourers and servants at Tanpencefn Mawr farm in Anglesey as a strength test in ancient times and was donated to the museum so that this tradition was not forgotten as interest waned.  

Emma had helped me greatly with my research into the Garreg Orchest and took me to one of the basement storage areas for the museum where the stone had sat undisturbed for over 30 years. 

It was like the final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with rows upon rows of shelves and storage boxes, but we finally found the feat stone wrapped in an old blanket on a bottom shelf, and with some pulling and sliding of the stone managed to position it in a relatively clear area. 

It was a lovely looking smooth stone, and although the museum records stated that it was around 100lbs and used for throwing above the head, I quickly informed Emma that this was all of 200lbs and could not have been a throwing stone, but one for shouldering at the very best.  

Conscious that I was standing on a concrete floor in a cramped storeroom, I carefully lifted the stone to chest height, and then on a second attempt shouldered it, wondering how long it had been since this stone had been lifted, and by whom, with the only connection between us being this smooth round piece of Welsh stone, it was with some sadness that I replaced the stone back on the shelf and covered with the blanket again. 

Emma was delighted to see this piece of Welsh tradition being performed, and we spoke at some length in the museum library about the Welsh Garreg Orchest customs, and the possibility of the museum stone becoming part of a “saint day” display in the grounds of the restored Church in the Museum living village. 

What I have found with this research into Welsh lifting stones is that almost without exception the history and purpose of the stones have almost been totally forgotten, and with them the traditions that used to link a community one to each other, but once people are reminded of the importance that their forebears used to assign to these stones, they fully embrace the significance of them and make them part of living history again. 

Ultimately a stone is just a stone, but if the traditions and history of those that lifted it before are remembered it becomes more than that, it becomes something important to the community as a continuation with the past, and on a more personal note to those reading this article, it becomes just one more link in the chain that joins the brotherhood of wastone together. 

Roger Davis