The Lligwy ancient monuments: three millennia of history in the fields of eastern Anglesey

I recall my father, on Scottish family holidays growing up, making us delay those seaside trips every child wants beyond all others whilst we detoured across pathless tracts of moor in inclement weather, searching for some ancient standing stone or burial site. Sites, I’ll have you know, invariably transpiring to be significantly far from their map mark and thus frequently protracting the wait to reach the beach by frustrating amounts of time.

One might have guessed this would make me loathe the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and indeed any age where the tangible legacy today is primarily ruinous remains. Strangely, it had the opposite effect.

Hen Capel Lligwy on Anglesey © Kerry Walker

On an exquisite, sharply-lit winter’s afternoon last week, an almost complete role reversal of that childhood Neolithic nightmare took place as I found myself (having dropped no end of hints that this should be on the holiday agenda!) striding gamely out across a squelchy field, partner/co-founder of Undiscovered Wales and baby in tow, scouting out some ancient sites and postponing our own coastal sojourn.

The setting had now switched to Wales, and to Anglesey where prehistoric monuments are particularly prolific. I was starting our child off on Stone Age quests far earlier than my father started me (so young she has not yet learned how to vocalise her protest) but otherwise it was déjà vu. 

Adoration of the ancient…

We dig ancient monuments a lot on this site (as in appreciate, not as in excavate, a regard in my partner’s case and an absolute addiction in my own) for just the reasons I once dreaded them. They are in middle-of-nowhere locations, or at least locations where the significance has largely been forgotten about by most of us. They are concealed in corners of fields or amidst barren, boggy hills and give a reason to visit these places that would otherwise not be there. We delight in their vagueness, where even their locations are often beyond the most precise of maps to pinpoint, with archaic italic script splayed across an otherwise blank OS grid space sufficing but rarely specifying where they are. We delight in the dearth of exact knowledge that exists about most of these monuments, with the construction of many only datable to within a millennium, with their purpose only conjecture. All of these things fuel the adventurer within you; force you to speculate a little for yourself. And all of these things make ancient monuments brilliant places to write about on a site which revels in the lesser-known. 

The crypt at Hen Capel Lligwy ©Kerry Walker

Anglesey’s archaeology

Want to start exploring ancient monuments, and Anglesey is one of the best locations in Wales (and, therefore, Britain) to begin. The onetime capital of the Welsh princes in medieval times, it was a place of special significance for various cultures since humans first started making history. Backtrack a tad further and it was the early Christian missionaries establishing places of worship here, further again and it was the Romans setting up settlements, back some more and it was prehistoric peoples raising one of the UK’s greatest concentrations of Stone, Iron and Bronze Age constructions from burial chambers to standing stones to tumuli.  

The Lligwy sites: their legacy and their location

The capstone atop Lligwy Burial Chamber is one of Britain’s biggest © Kerry Walker

The trio of ancient Lligwy monuments scattered through fields and woodland just west of the charming coastal village of Moelfre are special because of the broad picture they paint of the past. They consist of the Lligwy Burial Chamber, a late Neolithic site; Din Lligwy, a Roman fortified farmstead and Hen Capel Lligwy, a 12th-century chapel. They illustrate the enduring fascination different cultures had with those that came before them, for it cannot be coincidence that down one otherwise innocuous inland country lane humans hailing from three eras spread across 3,000 years chose to erect buildings that embodied what was important to them. 

First up, coming from the south and the A5108, is the Lligwy Burial Chamber, which you would miss if you weren’t keeping an eye out for it. From the roundabout where A5108 and A5025 meet, trundle north along the little lane unceremoniously signed ‘Din Lligwy’ until just before the track to a farm on the left. Pass through the kissing gate besides a narrow muddy lay-by and there you are. It is a colossus of a chamber: a mighty 25-odd-tonne capstone believed to be one of Britain’s biggest balancing on rather flimsy-looking support stones that give the structure the air of a giant frozen-in-time arachnid. The probable date of its construction? Some time at the end of the third millennium BC. This lichen-bedaubed assemblage of stones is also notable because excavations here suggested the site was used both in the Neolithic and in the Bronze Age, with pottery shards found here from both periods. There is no pomp or fanfare about the burial chamber (known as a cromlech in Welsh), which we liked – just a simple noticeboard and a perimeter protective fence – and it is easily the most impressive of the many Anglesey burial chambers, rendered more so by the fact this is only the first of three time-lost monuments in the vicinity.    

The main dwelling at Din Lligwy © Kerry Walker

Back in the car, or on your bike, or even by foot (a path follows the stream from Moelfre to near the Burial Chamber entrance), continue along the lane until just after the afore-mentioned farm track on the left, where a much wider lay-by lends access to Lligwy:2 and Lligwy:3. The chapel of Hen Capel Lligwy is visible from the road, on a prominent grassy rise looking down to the auburn sands of Traeth Lligwy. You can enter the peaceful, roofless place of worship, possibly or possibly not connected to a Royal court during a 12th century which saw Anglesey thriving as the key political centre in medieval Wales, and descend into a vault. It shares its time of construction with many other churches and chapels across Anglesey and Wales for a reason: the 1100s were a time when Viking raids were ceasing and so renewed confidence that such structures would survive being ransacked was starting to spread. 

Din Lligwy in the afternoon sun © Kerry Walker

A path leads past the chapel and across a field into a small wood, at the top of which Din Lligwy comes into view. This gaggle of Roman dwellings turns the clock back a full eight centuries to the tail end of Roman occupation, the 4th century AD. The farmsteads take the form of stone hut circles, huddled against the woodland edge, a well preserved series of buildings with the best, and principle dwelling, at the back. Their fortification is indicative of the builders harbouring the nagging concern that Roman power here was waning, and that threat of invasion was correspondingly growing.  

Leaving Lligwy

We were bound for the vast sandy beach at Traeth Lligwy, a few hundred metres below the Lligwy complex across the road connecting Moelfre and Rhos Lligwy, and after spending an hour or so roaming the three sites, made our way there for shell-searching, wave-splashing, writing names in the sand and other fun wintry beach activities. From the beach car park we turned back, looking back the way we had come. The chapel was still within sight, staring down the fields at us. Perhaps it was built when Viking raids had ended, but it seemed to be keeping one eye on the sea, just in case. 

Traeth Lligwy beach © Kerry Walker

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Capel Lligwy/ Din Lligwy lay-by, it is 32 miles southeast then northeast to one of the most palatial places to stay in North Wales, the lovely and relatively little known Bodysgallen Hall.

At a glance

How to get there: Coming from Menai Bridge, take the A5025 north for ten miles to the first roundabout you’ll see on the road, near Llanallgo. Bear straight over this roundabout along a sinuous country lane to reach Lligwy:1 (the Burial Chamber) after a little under a mile. Allow a good hour for exploring all three sites at leisure.

Parking: Respective lay-by’s for the Burial Chamber (small) and the chapel/ Din Lligwy (a bit bigger).

Refreshments: Grab something in pretty little Moelfre afterwards: it has a cute cafe and a pub featuring in all the good beer guides. Both face the sea.

Best time to visit: Any time of year with a sharp light to cast some mysterious shadow and perspective on these ancient stones.

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