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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

St Non's and Stonehenge


I was out at St Non's today, doing a bit of filming for ITV (relating the folk tale of the birth of St David) and while I waited for the film crew to turn up I had a quick look around the old chapel.  It's in the foreground in this photo -- the St Non's retreat centre and the 1934 "hermitage" chapel are on the skyline.  The latter was intended as a replica of the original small chapels that were built in medieval times in coastal locations in Ireland, Wales and Brittany, often to commemorate the landing places of assorted Celtic saints.

The interesting thing about the ruined chapel (probably built around 800 AD and then re-fashioned around 1400) is that it consists of an extraordinary collection of stones of all shapes and sizes, but all collected from within a radius of maybe 200m.  At the base are the biggest glacial erratics -- some of them rounded or sub-rounded boulders weighing up to 2 tonnes.   They all seem to have come from the W and NW, where assorted Pre-Cambrian volcanics (including ashes and rhyolites) outcrop.  Particularly noticeable are the dolerites and gabbros, probably from St David's Head.  One or two very big blocks, which appear to have been shaped, are made of the red Cambrian basal conglomerate, which is probably the most distinctive rock-type in Pembrokeshire.  The outcrops of this rock are within 200m of the chapel site, and I think these blocks have been moved into position by the builders.  I also think that some of the biggest stones have come from a ruinous Bronze Age stone setting in the same field, which now only has 5 stones left in their original positions.  Was the chapel built here because this was already a sacred site?  It's quite possible, but it was not so sacred as to stop the Christian builders from pinching a few standing (or lying) orthostats.

If you click on the photo to enlarge, you can see many smaller rounded glacial erratics built into the wall, together with red or purple slabs which are much more angular -- suggesting that they have been quarried locally or collected from rockfalls beneath the cliffs.  They have all come from the Lower Cambrian flagstones, shales and sandstones in the cliffs which are only about 100m away from the site. 

Relevance for Stonehenge?  Same old message -- if you want to build a building which has some religious or spiritual significance, you just use what's handy........ and since you end up having a nice cleared patch of land around you, it becomes much more desirable for animal grazing, farming and having delightful picnics in the sun -- in the times when you are not praying or doing penance for your sins.


8 comments:

chris johnson said...

I wonder if you are aware of any hard evidence that links this site to the Bronze Age?

I agree with your post. It seems evident on several levels that this is a spiritually important place with a long history. It is not clear WHY this should be so. I don't know, for example, if the spring water has ever been scientifically tested although people still splash it into their eyes.

Curious place and had I ever to choose between visiting the famous cathedral or the cliff top ruins at St Nons I would choose the latter.

I could also imagine that there are links back to the neolithic although I cannot think of any data points off-hand.

BRIAN JOHN said...

In the field where the ruined chapel is there are 5 standing stones, none of them more than c 1m tall, and pretty irregular in shape. They don't look to me as if they are on the circumference of a stone circle, but if they are all that is left, most of the stones might have been incorporated into the foundations of the chapel. All speculation..... I'm not aware of any Neolithic features in the neighbourhood.

Don't know about the water either. Apparently it was used at one time as "holy water" for the baptismal font in the cathedral, which is only about 1 km away.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Message from Tony H:

Having visited St Non's Chapel and Well last September, I noted that the high ground of Clegyr Boia fortified craggy site - under a mile as the crow or chuff flies - can be easily seen to the North West from the cliff path.
Clegyr Boia was, I understand, fortified during the late Neolithic, then continued in use through the rest of prehistory. It is, as far as I know, a very important early settlement in England and Wales.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Tony points out that in saying "chuff" he meant "chough".......well, we are all in a hurry sometimes....

TonyH said...

For those interested in all things Neolithic in West Wales, Wales and Britain, I stumbled across this website:-

www.neolithicbritain.org/neolithic-studies-group-spring-meeting-in...

This specific reference should take us to more on Clegyr Boia, near St David's. But it also mentions Garn Turne, Carreg Samson, and the relatively recent excavations at each; also, the Group visited Carn Llidi and Coetan Arthur. The Meeting took place on May 21st, 2013.

Anonymous said...

I think I am right in saying that, in Saxon times in England at least, one of the leading lights in the Christian hierarchy [St Augustine?] said that the best way to counter the Old Religion was to slap a Church on top of, or close to, old stone circles and the like. This occurred at Avebury. Another prime example is Knowlton Church, Dorset, situated inside a
Neolithic henge enclosure.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, it's thought that many of the Pembrokeshire churches are built on prehistoric sites which were presumably revered before the Celtic saints came along with the new religion. Perfectly sensible piece of diplomacy......

TonyH said...

So, were those still - admirable chaps who erected the stones at Stonehenge, highly AVENTUROUS, stirring, gung-ho, and determined to tell Michael Palin - like Ripping Yarns [check his Wikipedia entry] to their great - grand children: OR, were they rather speculative, opportunistic, going more for ADVENTITIOUS stone collecting, using what happened to be conveniently lying around within,
say, 30 miles of the future Stone Circle,and perhaps rather less likely to want to "bust a gut" or develop a hernia for no good reason in these pre - NHS times? Answers on a stone slab please.