Queen of the stone age: my love affair with Wales’ megaliths | Pembrokeshire holidays

After I die, I would like my ashes to be scattered in Pentre Ifan’s shadow. The scatterer must look forward to a uncommon, windless day. It’s on these nonetheless days that the close by hawthorn bushes, those most uncovered and bent almost lateral by prevailing westerlies, can break your coronary heart. They appear ridiculous, like blown birthday candles perpetually being extinguished, gusted over to 1 facet. When there’s no wind, you marvel why they don’t spring again up straight. However they by no means do.

The hawthorns develop at a respectful distance to the west of Pentre Ifan. The horizon behind them is hitched to the sky by the biggest “mountain” in west Wales: Carn Ingli, the Hill of Angels. It’s simply 347 metres of historical defend volcano, but it surely has a giant status. They are saying in the event you sleep on its summit, angels will whisper their secrets and techniques in your goals. One other model says the Earth will converse to you as you sleep. I’d quite hear what the bedrock has to say.

Wales’ first nationwide poet, Gwyneth Lewis, declares in six-foot letters on the slate facade of Cardiff’s Millennium Centre: “In these stones, horizons sing.” I’m American, however I’ve been listening to Welsh rock for effectively over 30 years. I first went to Wales as a graduate pupil in Lampeter, and felt immediately at house within the panorama. Friendships, familiarity with historical past, legend, even language, all got here later, however the West Walian panorama sang to me instantly of belonging. The countryside appeared each acquainted and vital, although I’d by no means been there earlier than. Its hilly, treeless lucidity revealed how the earth had been made, by each males and glaciers. I felt I’d discovered the important thing to a map I’d carried in my head since I used to be a bit lady, however as a result of I’d at all times lived in cluttered locations, had by no means been in a position to learn. And till I may learn that map, I’d had no sense of my or my species place on the planet.

That’s how vital Wales was for me – and I’m simply describing the reactions of my first month! The spotlight of my first month was a go to to Pentre Ifan in Pembrokeshire’s Preseli Hills. Pentre Ifan is a megalithic monument, which simply means it’s a construction made of huge rocks: six standing stones and an enormous, horizontal capstone. The latter is delicately balanced greater than two metres up within the air atop simply three of the vertical stones – a fourth barely misses touching. The impact is of a laden tray carried on the fingertips as an alternative of the palm of the hand.

One of many remaining standing stones serves as a stationary door, and the opposite two huddle close by in ethical assist. All are lined in generations of lichen that bristle atop each other, grey-on-grey, like massive, soiled snowflakes.

The Foel Drygarn hillfort in the Preseli hills.
The Foel Drygarn hillfort within the Preseli hills. {Photograph}: Stuart Corridor/Alamy

Pentre Ifan might also be referred to as a cromlech, a prehistoric tomb, or a dolmen. It was constructed about 5,500 years in the past, 1,000 years earlier than the Egyptians began work on the pyramids at Giza. Wales’s “historical” castles are simply pop-up ruins by comparability.

I stay within the US however come to Wales yearly to direct the Dylan Thomas Summer season College inventive writing programme. We regularly take the scholars to Pentre Ifan, regardless of the climate. Maybe due to its singularity, and the truth that I stay most of my life elsewhere, the monument acts like a lightning rod to reminiscence. I see the scholars photographing the dolmen, however I additionally see myself at 23, flirting with the younger archaeologist who first took me there. Blink. I see myself at 30 with a special haircut and my now-longtime feminine companion, pretending the capstone is falling on my head. Blink. I see myself alone at 56, speaking on the telephone to my 95-year-old mom within the US, reminding her who I’m.

How about this: what if Pentre Ifan was initially constructed as a lightning rod to reminiscence, precisely the best way it nonetheless works for me at present?

Archaeologists have lengthy considered portal dolmens as tombs, although no hint of human stays has ever been found at Pentre Ifan. In Locations of Particular Advantage, their 2004 examine of megaliths and the neolithic panorama of Wales, Vicki Cummings and Alasdair Whittle suggest a special concept about Welsh megaliths specifically. What if portal dolmens akin to Pentre Ifan have been bookmarks in an origins story gleaned from the panorama?

St Brynach’s Church near Nevern.
St Brynach’s Church close to Nevern. {Photograph}: Picture Professionals/Alamy

Evaluating the settings of 104 monuments in Wales, Cummings and Whittle found that megaliths akin to Pentre Ifan are geographic cruxes. From every a viewer can absorb a variety of distinctive panorama parts. Don’t consider Pentre Ifan as an finish in itself, they are saying; consider it as an alternative as a immediate to look out quite than in. An enormous image body that pulls collectively views of the Irish Sea, Carn Ingli, the Preseli Hills, and 4 rocky outcrops on the south-western horizon referred to as Meibion Owen – Owen’s Sons. The Welsh panorama would have been extra forested in Neolithic instances, however these landmarks would’ve been seen by means of the bushes, particularly in winter.

A radical concept, proper?

And why not? Cummings and Whittle recommend that in neolithic Wales, clans weren’t settled; they migrated seasonally, and dolmens akin to Pentre Ifan acted as mnemonics for his or her storytellers, prompting tales about locations and previous.

Nobody could be sure as to the megaliths’ objective – that horizon of forgetting has disappeared over the rim of prehistory – however I consider this concept. In actual fact, I can enact it for you. In case you stand to the east and look by means of Pentre Ifan’s nice aperture, you’ll see Carn Ingli framed within the westward distance. I recommend mountain climbing it – an hour up, a picnic, 45 minutes down. It provides a beautiful view of Cardigan Bay, and in sure climate, you’ll see sunbeams bent into rings round its summit as they refract within the mist. The fires of the gods of outdated.

In case you stand on the dolmen and gaze north, the Earth slopes right down to kind the good bowl of the Nevern valley, topped by the blue blur of the bay. On the A487, almost reverse the Pentre Ifan turning, is a signpost to Nevern/ Nanhyfer. I really like the identify in each languages. Nevern. It’s each promise and prohibition. “This strategy to by no means.”

The view along the Golden Road on the Preseli Hills.
The view alongside the Golden Street on the Preseli Hills. {Photograph}: Kevin Rushby/The Guardian

Go that manner. You’ll come to a twilight of historical yews – about 500 years outdated and well-known for his or her blood-red sap – and simply previous them, in a churchyard, a Tenth-century Celtic cross almost 4 metres tall and swathed in neon-orange lichen. You then’ll come to Saint Brynach’s church, based in about 540, although the oldest component of the present construction is its 14th-century tower. I wish to spend a quiet second or two inside, my fingers tracing the Ogham inscriptions – its letters like rain slashes in kids’s drawings – of a headstone of the Romano-British worthy, Maglocunus, set into the sill of the south window.

In case you return to Pentre Ifan and switch east, you’ll be trying within the route of Castell Henllys, an evocative reconstructed iron age village. And in the event you gaze south, you’ll see the Preseli Hills, authentic house of Stonehenge’s bluestones, driving earthen waves to the horizon. The Preselis supply among the greatest mountain climbing in Wales. My favorite path is the seven-mile Golden Street, a 4,000-year-old ridgeway frequented by hikers and wild ponies, which extends between Crymych within the east and the Gwaun Valley within the west. Custom has it that gold mined in Eire’s Wicklow Hills was transported in prehistoric instances by way of this path to England. Once I final hiked it with mates from Swansea, their daughter Roísín declared it “The Essential Road” of her Neolithic ancestors.

On the centre of this compass is Pentre Ifan itself, my favorite place on Earth. As a result of I don’t stay in Wales, I usually really feel hiraeth for the rootedness I sense in its presence – a series of associations taking me again by means of my very own previous all the best way to the stone age. Hiraeth is an untranslatable Welsh phrase that means one thing like longing, or homesickness. I like to think about it as an acute presence of absence haunting the current second. Over the previous 9 years I’ve been writing a memoir referred to as The Lengthy Subject, which makes use of hiraeth as a lens to view Wales and my very own life.

Within the e-book I say that I consider hiraeth is on the coronary heart of Welsh tradition. I don’t simply imply that Wales has suffered many losses and absences; I imply that absence usually turns into an engine for inventive invention as effectively. Working example: megaliths akin to Pentre Ifan are monuments orphaned by time. Their that means is absent to us now. And but, that lacking signification prompts archaeologists like Cummings and Whittle to marvel and, by means of their analysis, reimagine the previous.

It additionally prompts all types of people tales to develop up across the monuments. At Pentre Ifan, the custom is to make a want beneath the capstone’s southern overhang. My want is that we by no means clear up the riddle of the megaliths. I by no means need to cease questioning.

Pamela Petro’s The Lengthy Subject is out now (Little Toller Books, £20). To purchase a duplicate for £17.40 together with UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.com

Three extra historical websites in Wales

Carreg Samson, a Neolithic burial chamber near Abercastle on the coast of Pembrokeshire.
Carreg Samson, a Neolithic burial chamber close to Abercastle on the coast of Pembrokeshire. {Photograph}: Andrew Kearton/Alamy

Carreg Samson
A 5,000-year-old neolithic chambered tomb on an impressive clifftop overlooking the ocean in Pembrokeshire. Legend holds that Saint Samson set the capstone in place along with his little finger.

Foel Eryr Cairn
A brief stroll from the western path head of the neolithic Golden Street, is this huge, conical bronze age burial web site with a commanding presence and very good views. Take a look, then double again and stroll the traditional highway.

Bryn Celli Ddu
This megalithic monument on Anglesey is essentially the most well-known on my listing, and is an excellent passage tomb. It’s all the extra distinctive as a result of it’s nonetheless lined in a grassy mound. It’s splendidly eerie inside, and its passage is roughly aligned with the summer time solstice.

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