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Welsh Stone Tour - Roger Davis

· Wales

Part 3 of Roger's articles on his time lifting Welsh stones.


A Welsh Stone Tour, with ‘Bread, Cheese & Beer’  

Efenechtyd stone, Ffordd Cerrig Caws’stone, Ysytby Ifan, Maen y Campiau stone, Penmaenmawr, Criccieth 

It had been over a year since I had given any serious thought to stone lifting, my book on the history of the Welsh Garreg Orchest (‘feat stone’) was progressing well, and my running was giving me all the physical goals I wanted. 

It was funny how the strength challenges that were once so important to me had been replaced pretty easily with the endurance challenges, I don’t suppose it matters what you are doing as long as you are doing something, but it was strange to be looking at myself in the mirror wishing that shoulders, chest and legs would shrink to aid my running with the same desire I had 25 years previous wishing they would grow to aid my weightlifting. 

My previous running injury had healed up and I now ran daily with my dog through the woods and fields that were close to my home, whatever the weather we paced through mud, grass, and gravel, it seemed as natural as walking as I could take in the views without gasping for air anymore, modern man would call it exercise, our ancient forebears would have called it living! 

I was pretty close to tying up all of the loose ends of the book, when a few remaining threads came to light, and I made the decision to investigate further. 

The first was a photograph of a large stone surrounded by heather that was featured in a 1981 Welsh journal article by Tecwyn Vaughan Jones of the University of Bangor. The article was in Welsh, and Tecwyn had already kindly translated the key sections into English for me 3 years previous, but it now dawned on me that the picture may have not been of the Ysbyty Ifan stone as I had originally thought it was, but of another Welsh lifting stone. 

Following further communication to Tecwyn he confirmed that this was indeed a different stone, and that the photo was taken in 1969 by renowned Welsh historian, Robin Gwyndaf (co-incidentally the very year I was born),  and he  gave me some contact details to investigate further. 

It was with some nervousness that I phoned Robin; I was aware of his academic background. He is a former Curator of Folklore at St Fagans, National History Museum, near Cardiff. He joined the National Museum of Wales in 1964, and on his retirement in 2006 was made an Honorary Research Fellow. He has successfully published 18 books on Welsh folk culture and now spends his time giving lectures on the subject worldwide. 

I need not have been worried as a musical and friendly voice greeted me from the other end of the line with a cheery “Bore da” (‘Good morning’), and after briefly explaining my whole stone lifting background and research into Welsh stones to him, Robin could not have been more enthusiastic. 

He reminded me of a Welsh David Webster, had been pursuing his chosen area of research for many years, but still remained as vibrant, enthusiastic and open to new ideas and information as a schoolboy, I was immediately welcomed as a fellow student of Welsh folklore, even if Robin had to painstakingly correct my pronunciation of the various Welsh names and sayings on a number of occasions. 

During an hour conversation he told me what he knew of the stone that he had taken a picture of all those years ago and informed me that it was located deep within Mynydd Hiraethog (the Hiraethog Mountain, also known as Denbigh Moors). 

The area, he explained, was worked extensively for agriculture (sheep farming mainly) and is now largely unpopulated,  although a number of derelict lodges, farms and houses tell of its history, and is an area of natural beauty and a nature reserve, being one of the only  areas remaining to see the native red squirrel. 

Robin informed me that the stone was always known locally as “y garreg orchest” (‘the feat stone’), and that alone gives a clear indication as to its history and purpose. Its location may give some more background to the context of its function, as it is situated not in any village or farm, but rather isolated at the bottom of Boncyn Bryn y Maen. ( Boncyn means ‘small hill’. Bryn y Maen means ‘stone hill’.) 

 The stone is fairly near an ancient cart road, known locally as ‘Ffordd Cerrig Caws’ (‘stone cheese road’).  Robin was also informed by one or two of the older generation during the 1960s that this was the location ‘in the old days’ of Ffair Cerrig Caws (‘the cheese stone fair’).  It was a traditional stopping point for travellers on their route and for the local inhabitants and people of the surrounding area to meet and exchange goods, such as butter, cheese, eggs, oats and barley. Also, no doubt, they would enjoy themselves in gossip and storytelling, music and poetry, dance and games and feats of strength. 

As for the feat stone on Boncyn Bryn y Maen, according to tradition some of the young men of  llawr gwlad (‘low country’, i.e. the Vale of Clwyd) would meet here  to challenge the ‘strong boys’ of Mynydd Hiraethog to a contest of lifting the Garreg Orchest. They would then have a feast of ‘bara a chaws a chwrw’: (‘bread and cheese and beer’). 

Robin was absolutely delighted to hear about the Welsh stones that had already been identified, visited and lifted, and very kindly offered to take me to the stone on Mynydd Hiraethog so that it could also be attempted and feature within the book, a date was arranged for a few weeks time, when Robin’s busy itinerary allowed, and we agreed to meet outside the White Lion pub in Cerrigydrudion at 9am on the 14th June 2014. It was another date with destiny. 

*       *       * 

I decided that I would make the most of the trip and use it to tie up a few loose ends for the book and also invite my friends Alex Roberts, Martin Jansics and Peter Martin along for company as well as to get some more photos of the big lads lifting some of the Welsh stones that had not had too much attention. 

The evening of the 13th June found me in the living room of Alex Roberts house in Warwick, he was kindly putting me up for the night to enable our early morning start into Wales, and it was always nice to spend time with him, his wife Bernadette and his three young children, they have got a lovely family home. 

The children were put to bed, and as evening fell I was soon supping on my third glass of malt whiskey as myself and Alex discussed the coming day’s plans, it was just like our trip to Scotland the previous year, and all the feelings of excitement and apprehension came flooding back 

It was great to see Alex again, it does not matter how long it is between acquaintances, when you have forged a friendship through a shared experience of blood and stone these bonds cannot be easily broken. 

Alex has really progressed in his stone lifting abilities and it would be fair to say that he is already a much stronger stone lifter than myself, and I was looking forward to seeing what he could do with the Welsh stones, especially the Criccieth stone, the one I had failed to lift, and still the most challenging stone in the British Isles 

The Alarm clock went off at 5am, and after a quick munch on toast and coffee and we were on our way to Wales, the weather forecast was good, and I had lined up a number of contacts for us to meet and challenging stones for us to lift. I knew I would be a spectator on this trip rather than a lifter, but I still looked forwards to meeting old friends and seeing Welsh history come to life. 

At 8am we pulled into the very small car park at Efenechtyd behind the Church of St Michael and all Angels, only to be met a few minutes later by Martin and Peter pulling up in a rather snazzy MG sports car, they had travelled down from Scotland the night before and stayed in a local hotel. 

It was great to see Peter again and have him along on a stone tour that I was hosting this time, we had a lot of history and good memories, and it would also be good to get to know Martin a bit better as our paths had only briefly crossed in Dalwhinnie the previous year. 

Pleasantries were exchanged and then we were down to business as we had a busy day ahead, I opened the ancient church door with a creak and lifted the “maen camp” (another term for feat stone) from under the font and carried it to a clear space on the North side of the churchyard. 

It is a relatively light stone at 101lbs, but history records that this stone was thrown over the head, and thrown backwards, which really adds a challenge to the feat. I will not repeat the full history of the stone which I have already published in Milo.  

Alex was up first and made some good throws by lifting first to chest and then overhead, he had done this before and was a regular guest at the village “Gwylmabsant’’ (‘patron saint’s festival’) where as the person who threw the stone the furthest also became the designated champion of the village. He had not been called upon to defend any one’s honour as of yet. 

Martin stepped up to the mark and was, I think, surprised at just how awkward this little stone was, he tried to swing between legs to launch overhead but even at 101lbs it was just too heavy and so he duplicated Alex’s technique and managed some good lifts. 

With one final look at the delightful churchyard, we replaced the stone to its place of slumber in the church and moved on to the next feat. 

We arrived at the White lion pub in Cerrigydrudion at 9am sharp and walked to a local shop to fill up on provisions for the coming day, pasties and pies were purchased and consumed, and it was whilst walking back to the car that I noticed a smartly dressed gentleman taking pictures of the local architecture, and I knew immediately that this must be Robin, and we introduced ourselves. 

Robin was delighted to meet us all and spoke with great enthusiasm that he had travelled up from Cardiff a few days ago and was pleased to tell us that the stone was still in place and ready for us to try and lift, “you won’t lift it though” he said, “it is very large, and I don’t think it would be possible to lift, but I am looking forwards to seeing you try” 

I was very impressed that Robin had travelled all the way from Cardiff just a few days previous to check the stone was still there (his last visit was 45 years previous) and had then returned once again this morning from Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, near Llangollen, to host our visit, a really generous act, and one that showed just how much value he placed on his local Welsh customs and traditions and keeping the interest going Robin had a very tight schedule, so without much further ado we followed him northwards for about 7 miles to reach the Gors Maen Llwyd nature reserve, North of Llyn Brenig reservoir where the stone was located. As we left the Nantglyn B 4501 road and pulled into the gravel covered car park, Robin indicated to the left with his hand, and we noted a large stone by the side of the gravel road. 

Myself, Martin, Alex and Peter quickly parked our car and walked up to this large stone, we took a few pictures and then I began to roll it over and look for a good handhold, it was then that Robin rejoined us with a wry smile on his face. “What are you doing boys”, he said, “that is not the stone, it is just a bit of the car park wall, the real stone is along this track to the left”.  

Feeling rather foolish we all followed Robin’s brisk walk down the gravel track, past a nearby pool and local quarry, after 200 meters or so we drew alongside a small mound and Robin indicated that the garreg orchest was through the heather and in a narrow ditch a few metres to the right, and after a short scramble through the heather we saw that he was  right. 

The stone was very large, slightly angular, covered in age old lichen and sunk deep into the soft Welsh peat. With a bit of effort, I managed to rock and lever it out of its snug bed and roll clear of the hole that was left behind. 

The hole was at least 12 inches deep, and I noted with interest that a large flat stone appeared to be at the bottom, and instinctively I knew that the stone had been placed there to stop this most important garreg orchest from sinking into the ground and becoming lost to the ages, but who had placed this protective barrier, because Robin had not moved the stone 45 years ago when he took the photo, I doubted that it had been moved in  over a century. 

It is this link to the past that really appeals to me, one strong hand had rolled the stone back into place after attempting the feat, then the world had changed all around it, empires had risen and empires had fallen, technological advancements had changed the way we had lived for centuries, world wars decimated millions and changed national boundaries, children were born, lived and died and now, after all that time, after all that change,  one strong hand rolled it away to attempt the very same feat .....and it was my hand. 

I knew that my strength was down, and this was a big bulky stone, probably 130 – 140kg in my estimation, I knew I would not stand up with it, I just wanted to break the ground, to be the first, I set myself, got a good grip, felt for the balance and pulled, I was rewarded with a good lift as the stone broke free of the Welsh soil a good 6 inches and was held for a few seconds, I had accomplished the feat and that was all I had set out to do. 

Robin was delighted and was literally jumping up and down with excitement. At first, he was not sure whether the lifting of the stone had been just a  legend and that it was not actually possible. “You haven’t seen anything yet” I told him as Alex and Martin stepped up to the plate. 

Alex made a very good lift to stand up with the stone in his lap, but then Martin took things a step further and lifted this piece of Welsh history  up to his chest, it was then apparent just how massive this stone was,  and I wondered if anyone had ever produced a similar lift in its long history, Martin is at the top of his game at present and it would have had to be an unusually strong individual to have replicated this feat, but then strong men have existed all through the ages and I longed to roll back the curtains of time and see the previous lifts. 

If Robin was excited before then he really stepped into overdrive now, his enthusiasm was contagious, and we all felt the thrill that he had got in seeing something he had only heard about in oral tradition come to life before his eyes. 

Remembering what Robin had told me about the bread, cheese, and beer tradition, I had neatly packed some cheese sandwiches and a bottle of my finest homebrew stout in my rucksack, and it seemed an appropriate time to bring it out and share it with the lads. 

Robin & Peter seemed to like this symbolic gesture - a continuation of an age-old tradition, whilst I think Alex and Martin were just glad to get  a bit of grub and brew down their necks, and the sandwiches soon disappeared. 

The clock was ticking, and we had to get a move on to reach the next stone, but before we did a real highlight of the trip occurred. 

After finishing his bread, cheese and beer, Robin called us over into a little group, the sun was shining and a Cuckoo was heard in the background, “I want to tell you something now, boys”, Robin said with a serious sound to his voice, “I am over 70 years old, I have lived a very interesting life, I have visited many places, met many people and discovered many interesting pieces of Welsh history, but I have never, never had such a day as this. To see this Welsh piece of history come to life before my eyes, to see the feat stone lifted that I had only heard tale about, and to share the bread, cheese and beer with you has got to be one of the best days of my life. Diolch o galon: my ‘heartfelt thanks’ to you.” 

It was an emotional moment and touched us all deeply that this generous Welsh historian who did not know anything about us or our stone lifting traditions a few weeks previous had been so moved by the event, it was an instant bond that I knew we would never forget and the true highlight of the trip for me. 

We had to get on, Robin had a speaking engagement that afternoon and we still had four stones to find and lift, and with a final glance back at the heather covered hill we walked back to the car park and said our goodbyes, but a piece of me still remains with that stone in the heather. 

Our next stop was just up the road, at Eidda Fawr near Ysytby Ifan , the sheep farm run by Gwyn and Mairwen Davies, and within a few minutes of arriving we were having tea and biscuits with Gwyn in his farm house kitchen.  

Gwyn took Peter and Martin in his 4 x 4 to find the stone and I followed behind with Alex in my little red mini, it was a pretty bumpy ride and we had to walk the last bit as Gwyn drove his car up and over the pasture to park next to the stone. 

The Ysytby Ifan garreg orchest is a large slab of a stone, very similar in size and shape to the Husafell stone, if only a little lighter, I had found it large and awkward to get a hold of, but Alex and Martin didn’t show any signs of this in their attempts. 

Both made good lifts to the chest with the stone and went for a little walk down the hill and back up again, it was very impressive to watch, and I could see that Gwyn was delighted to see the stone on his land get some more action.  

David Horne had lifted and walked with the stone 62ft the year previous, very impressive and that was a feat that I knew would take some beating, we did not have a tape measure with us so I couldn’t say whether this distance was beaten or not, but both lads took the stone for a good long walk, turned around and came back and only appeared to put it down because they wanted to rather than had to, I think I will call it a feat equalled to be fair to all concerned. 

The next stone took a bit of finding, and it was not actually a lifting stone I was looking for, but rather a location where stone lifting would have taken place, and closely linked to the 24 welsh feats, the games of the ancient Welsh of which stone lifting was only one. 

One of the earliest records appears in the writings of Thomas Pennant and his writing Tours in Wales, 1810, where he describes in detail the landscape and traditions, he encounters on one of his grand tours of Wales. 

On page 116 of the 1810 edition (volume III) whilst describing the various ancient fortifications and stone circles at Penmaenmawr he writes the following. 

.... near this are four other circles, far inferior in size. In the centre of one         is a flat stone, the remains of a Cromlech ..... about a quarter of a mile from these is a large Carnedd, composed of small stone, and another of large stones and not far from these, a circle composed of small ones. 

Near the last is a great rude stone, standing upright, called Maen y Campiau, or stone of the games. 

Whatever purpose the lesser circles might have been designed for, there is great reason to suppose that the greater, especially that near the Maen y Campiau, was the British circus for the exhibition of ancient games ... probably the sessions for deciding the merits of rivals in our British Olympics might      originally been held here ... and of British games we had twenty – four. 

So we were looking for a large standing stone called “Maen y Campiau” (the correct spelling would be Maen y Campau, ‘the feats’ or ‘games stone’), stone of the games where these ancient traditions had taken place, and I had managed to track it down to a stone in a field by Hafoty Farm (OS map grid reference -  SH 747749). I knew nothing more and was not sure if any lifting stones would be close by this historic monument 

We drove up a number of very isolated and narrow country tracks before parking up at the ruined farmhouse of “Tyddyn – grasod” and then heading northeast along the footpath, after a few minutes walking across the rough heather and grassland moor a very distinctively shaped standing stone came into view in the distance, and we all quickened our pace to reach it. 

The standing stone was in the middle of a farmer’s field, and not being too sure of the right to roam laws in Wales I was slightly nervous as we scrambled over the high stone walls to get into the field, but once over there was no stopping me and I broke out in a veritable jog to reach the tall standing stone. 

It really was an impressive stone, around eight feet high, uniformly rectangular and standing proud and upright surrounded by a number of sunken low stones with a diameter of 50ft or so and the the view was magnificent, 

It was obviously a monolith put there by the ancient Neolithic peoples in the area as were a number of close by standing stones and Cromlechs, but I fully agreed with Pennant that this would be a fantastic place to hold the ancient Welsh games, a large flat field with commanding views across the country with the standing stone marking the gathering place for such events which would include running, jumping, wrestling and feats of strength, the large stone circle surrounding the standing stone created a natural arena where these events could take place, the name of the standing stone itself now the only distant reminder to those events. 

The guys all agreed that it was a special place, but there was one thing missing, one thing that would bring it all together ... a lifting stone, but I had a plan. 

I had noticed a large pile of rounded boulders a few hundred feet away whilst striding down the field and was soon rummaging around amongst them like a mad man to find a suitable stone, some were too big, some too small, too angular, too ugly and then I found one that was just right, rounded symmetrical and very, very heavy. 

It looked perfect, I am not saying that this was the stone that was used during the ancient games at this location, but I am a stone lifter, I have experience in these matters, and this was the only stone present in the whole field that would be suitable and worthy of the name Garreg Orchest. 

“This is the one lads” I exclaimed as I struggled to prise it out of the pile and onto the flat grass, it was big and we had to move it 100 feet, not an easy task even with four of us, fortunately I had planned for such an event and bought a strong army blanket with me in my rucksack, which when the stone was rolled onto it made the task just a bit more possible. 

Even with the weight distributed through the four corners of the blanket it was a bit of a struggled and we waddled, dragged, hitched and carried the ponderous boulder down the field to finally sit at the base of the Maen y Campau, it was an instant fit, like the pieces of a jigsaw coming back together and I knew that we had re-created an EPIC stone lifting location that was worthy of those ancient games many years ago. 

I had the great honour of first attempt at the feat, but after many attempts and lost skin on my arms could only get the slightest movement of stone away from turf, I did not mind in the least it just proved to me that I had chosen a suitable stone, the feat was greater than me and that just added to the excitement as Alex took over from where I had left off. 

He struggled as much as me initially, but then finally managed to get a solid grip and work out the balance to make a good lift to knee level .... the first time the feat had been performed in that location for many hundreds of years, it was a privilege to see. 

Martin stepped back into history next and made another valiant attempt on the stone, he too struggled initially, but then managed to improve on the feat by lifting into his lap, it was just too much to stand up with, but the magnitude of the feat had now been set, and it was a great feat in a great and atmospheric location. 

After a few moments soaking up the atmosphere and the views we all turned to trudge back up the hill and climb once again over the dry-stone wall, and as I did I looked backwards to see the Maen y Campau with its Garreg Orchest at its base, it looked as it if had been there for 500 years, and who knows, it may well have been. 

It was only a short journey to reach our next destination, the maen camp at the Penmaenmawr sensory gardens in the town centre, and we were pleased to see that the gates were unlocked and the garden in a reasonable state of repair as it had recently been vandalised and we were concerned for the availability of this historic Welsh feat stone. 

I had lifted the stone before, but it was all new to Alex and Martin as the first challenge was to roll the stone out of its little brickwork nest in the flower bed and roll onto the flat grass and I had always said “if you don’t think you can get it out and back in again then don’t even try lifting it as that is the easier of the two challenges” 

After a bit of rolling, pushing and cursing bruised and crushed fingers Alex had the stone in front of him and was ready to lift, it is an “Inver clone” really, pretty much the same size, shape and weight as the famed Inver stone in Scotland, and made of very hard Welsh granite. 

Alex is already experienced in this type of balanced lifting stone and made short work of lifting to lap and then standing upright for a good lift, what a round stone takes away on the grip difficulty it does make up for in rolling into position to stand up with, and also makes the easiest stone to shoulder. 

Shoulder was exactly what Martin wanted to do with the feat stone, he pretty much chooses to shoulder every stone that he can, and as stated the rounded stones are always a little bit easier to do this with. 

It was not plain sailing though, and after lifting to lap and standing up with the stone Martin just could not manage to plant it on his shoulder, and that is when the measure of the man came out, call it stubborn, call it determined or just call it bloody minded, he tried again and again, two, three, five, ten more times until finally the stone was perched on his shoulder 

That is the difference between a good and great stone lifter, the knowledge that it takes time and patience to get to know how to lift a particular stone and the determination to keep on trying even though the previous attempts have been unsuccessful, suddenly it all comes into place with a click and a successful lift is made, it was impressive, and my respect for Martin increased further 

While the lifting was going on a passing cyclist had stopped to watch what was going on, it turned out that he was a member of the Penmaen-mawr History Society, he knew the significance of the stone and was delighted to see it lifted for the first time that he had ever witnessed, fortunate timing indeed. 

Our final stone of the day was the one that had been at the back of everyone’s mind for the whole trip, the unspoken shadow that could not be ignored, the largest, heaviest and most challenging lifting stone in all of Britain ... the Criccieth stone. 

The lifters were already tired and battered when we pulled up to the Criccieth memorial hall, but the thought of the ultimate stone lifting challenge spurred them on to a veritable jog to reach the grounds where members of the memorial hall committee were already in situ to watch the spectacle. 

Steve Burr is now the custodian of the stone, and had removed the metal cage that now surrounds the stone, I have mixed feelings about this, but the committee were determined that individuals would not try and lift the stone without gaining permission and signing a waiver first, it is a sign of the litigious society we live in I guess, and is balanced by the fact that stone lifting visitors are met and hosted and an annual event is held where the stone is accessible to all. 

Martin, Alex and Peter were all dumbstruck when they saw the stone, not only its size but also lack of grip and smooth surface, “it is a monster” said Peter “and makes the Inver stone look like a pebble”, but monster or not I could see Alex beginning to pace up and down and home in on the target that he had in his mind for a long time. 

It was quite a struggle, Alex just could not find the right position to attack, the stone is so wide that any straddle leaves you in a very awkward position, and it is too large a mass to try and lift out to the front, finally Alex rolled the stone up on its end and tried to link hands under it, using the weight as a counter lever. 

He tried to lift once, twice, three times and on the fourth managed to get the grip he wanted and the stone came off the ground a few inches before dropping back to the earth with a dull thud, Alex was ecstatic, let out a roar and took a walk around the ground to soak up the feeling, I shook his hand “that was the stone that beat me” I said “my nemesis, you have lifted my un-liftable stone, I salute you” I was delighted for Alex and could see that this lift had meant a lot to him. 

Martin stepped up next and was literally bursting with energy and attacked the stone like a lion pouncing on its pray, he rolled it over, upended it, made some attempts but just could not get a grip, it was the unmovable object against the unstoppable force he tried from a number of different angles and positions and began to get frustrated. 

Martin is not one to give up, so he didn’t, again and again he attempted the lift, five, ten, fifteen, twenty attempts must have gone by and it was apparent that the spirit would just not let the failing body quit and in the end myself and Peter had to literally drag him away from any further attempts, he was frustrated and angry with himself, swearing a return visit at a later date, but I must say, it was one of the greatest displays of determination that I have ever seen, it doesn’t matter that the stone wasn’t lifted I had full respect for Martin for the depth and passion of his commitment ... it does of course matter to Martin, and that is why he will be back, he will not be able to live with himself otherwise.   

*       *       * 

That was the end of our Welsh stone lifting trip. We were all tired but satisfied that we had achieved something special and we were all proud to be part of it, stones had been discovered and stones had been lifted, but it is ultimately it was another experience that had joined together the members of the Brotherhood of stone. 

The strongest memory though and the one I will never forget was not about the feats of strength, the historic locations or the stones themselves, but rather about the time that five men shared ‘bread, cheese and beer’ waand rolled back the mists of time to make Welsh history come to life.  

Roger Davis - 2014