Ancient Magic: The Original Stones At Stonehenge Came From This Bouldering Area

 

King Arthur is buried here, in a circle of standing stones, or so one story goes. “Bedd Arthur” in Pembrokeshire, Wales, overlooks the rocky outcrop of Carn Meyn—in turn believed to be a source of some of the bluestones placed upright at the famous prehistoric monument of Stonehenge, southern England. Carn Goedog, a mile away on a ridge in the Preseli Hills, was in recent years identified as the main source of these dolorite pillars.

The tallest blocks at Stonehenge, called sarsens, are comprised of a type of sandstone found in the region of the monument, in England. The smaller ones, collectively known as bluestones, originated here in the Preselis, Wales, and are thought to have been placed at Stonehenge first. The bluestones are both dolorite and rhyolite. Near the Welsh coast is another source, Craig Rhos-y-felin, where one of the rhyolite columns at Stonehenge was quarried. 

The Preseli stones were all transported to Stonehenge, 140 miles away. How did they get there? Well, one was found at the bottom of a river, suggesting they were boated as well as hauled overland. Another theory, which ties back to Arthur, is that the wizard Merlin moved and assembled them. (Either Merlin or space aliens.) But why? We have our ideas on that.

Dylan Hannaford and Chris Moir-Coe leave a great evening session. Photo JACOB MARTIN

Ancient magic resides in what in Welsh is called Mynyddoedd Y Preseli, western Wales. Preseli is a climbing area—a bouldering crag. 

If gritstone is “God’s own rock,” get a load of this on Preseli from ukclimbing: “[It] climbs similarly to gritstone, but with more holds!”

The place has seen a surge in activity in the last few years, and is included in the upcoming South Wales Bouldering Guide, where the Preseli entry reads, “South Wales’ finest bouldering!” The website, on www.swbg.co.uk, continues: “Amazing setting, amazing rock and amazing lines! Exceptionally quick drying and very exposed!” Pay attention: That’s a lot of exclamation points. 

Cailean Harker, who lives a few hours away in Bristol, England, but whose father is a resident, tells us: “The Preselis is a beautiful and magical-feeling location. You can see why the early builders wanted to collect their stones from such a place!”

Harker recently established The Nowist, a beautiful arete (F7C+/V10) that as of this writing is the area’s hardest line. 

He tells us: “I believe there are in the region of 150 problems, although new things are developed regularly. The Nowist is still up there with the hardest boulders, although Eliot Stephens has just added another boulder of a similar difficulty.” That is Uncut Stones (also 7C+/V10). Another standout is Simon Rawlinson’s Purgatory, a compression 7C/V9 up a thin and techy arete.

Liam Fyfe on Sword and Shield (V9), on the tor of Mynydd Dinas. The Preselis stretch for 13 miles, with the village of Crymych at one end, inland, and Mynydd Dinas opposite, near the coast, above the town of Dinas Cross. Photo SIMON RAWLINSON

The bouldering is spread over three main areas: Mynydd Dinas, Carn Ingli and the main Preselis.  The quarry at Craig Rhos-y-felin where a rhyolite column in Stonehenge came from is not known as a climbing area, rather a small quarry of broken rock. 

The Preseli ridge stretches about 13 miles. Asked how much of it contains bouldering, Rawlinson says, “Possibly all of it, as there are many rocky tors along the ridge that we have only just started exploring the last few years.”

Another local, Jacob Martin, citing “bouldering of the highest quality,” wrote on www.epictv.com that the problems extend across all grades, with a plethora of 7A/V6 to 7C/V9s. 

“One of the best boulders in the area is a 6A/V3 called [both] Pete’s Prow / Classic High … a prominent and tall boulder in the main Preseli area, not far from the village of Crymych,” Martin wrote in the article. “It starts with nice slopers up one arete, then moves across so you are climbing on both aretes. It gets a little scary, though not difficult, towards the top. I have heard people even describe this as one of the best boulders they have ever done.”

Rob Lamey on Silent Hill (V7), at Carn Menyn, located near the village of Crymych, as well as a hill fort. Photo SIMON RAWLINSON

These hills were referenced in international news recently, when an ancient mystery was solved. For over 400 years, geologists and archeologists have been seeking the source of the massive sarsens of Stonehenge. Those are up to 23 feet tall and weigh an average of 25 tons; the largest, the Heel Stone, is 30 tons, according to English Heritage, the caretaker organization. The bluestones of Wales are more like 10 feet tall and two to five tons each. 

The source of the sarsens was finally revealed this year. In the 1950s, a repair worker took a core sample from a stone when sections were reinforced with metal rods. Robert Phillips prized the core and displayed it in his office, eventually taking it with him upon emigrating to the United States, and upon his 90th birthday asked that it be returned to the U.K. His sons brought it to English Heritage in 2018, and, as published July 29 of this year in Science Advances, scientists determined the source using non-invasive X-ray techniques. The stones were identified as coming from the West Woods, 15 miles north, near the town of Marlborough, Wiltshire. They are believed to have been moved—means and route still unknown—during the second stage of construction, around 2500 BCE.

Cailean Harker on The Nowist (V10), an airy arete on the Dragon’s Back, Preseli. Photo CAILEAN HARKER

Given that sarsens exist across the region, an English Heritage historian, Susan Greaney, stated: “We can now say, when sourcing the sarsens, the overriding objective was size—they wanted the biggest, most substantial stones they could find and it made sense to get them from as nearby as possible. This is in stark contrast to the source of the [Preseli] bluestones, where something quite different—a sacred connection to these mountains perhaps—was at play.” 

 In 1923 a geologist traced the bluestones to the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, 140 miles from Stonehenge. Where they were quarried was a subject of much speculation until, as noted in the journal Antiquity, “The discovery of a megalithic bluestone quarry at Craig Rhos-y-felin in 2011 marked a turning point in this research.”

That site, near the coast, produced rhyolite, while through fieldwork Carn Goedog was confirmed in 2014 as probably the major source of the dolerite bluestones. 

“We have dates of around 3400 BC for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 BC for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn’t get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 BC,” Professor Mike Parker Pearson of the University of London, project director, told www.ucl.ac.uk. “It could have taken those Neolithic stone-draggers nearly 500 years to get them to Stonehenge, but that’s pretty improbable in my view. It’s more likely that the stones were first used in a local monument, somewhere near the quarries, that was then dismantled and dragged off to Wiltshire.” 

Chris Moir-Coe on Grass Gulley (6C+/V5), Grass Gulley Boulders area. All Preseli Hills. Photo JACOB MARTIN

Cailean Harker, when asked if the ancient history is a theme for naming boulders and problems, says, “I don’t know of any names that relate to Stonehenge directly.” 

Well, happy to suggest some! How about … Neolithic Stone-Dragger. Or imagine what Scientific American called the “large-scale social coordination” and organization needed for all the labor. Social Coordination. 

And this phrase often appears: Sacred Landscape.

is a 40-minute day trip from the trad climbing of the famous Pembroke sea cliffs (when anyone in the U.K. and Europe will ever let Americans in again). The boulders are not tall, but are set amid open moors of heather and bracken, grasslands and bogs and sheep, with a view across Cardigan Bay into Snowdonia. Some of the climbing is on a sector called the Dragon’s Back, which looks like a sleeping … you got it. Castles, forts, burial cairns and remains from the Neolithic and Bronze ages dot the area.

How the massive stones were transported to Stonehenge from the West Woods or Preseli may be the next big discovery; or it might be finding the site of that first monument in Wales. Among the long-enduring mysteries of Stonehenge itself are its purposes: for burial sites, a meeting place, for astronomical or seasonal calendars. Druids later held ceremonies among them.  

We suggest another impetus: the early builders, those stone draggers, wanted a climbing gym. They wanted to go bouldering, too. On, perhaps …

Merlin’s Mantel.

Heel Stone Heel Hook.

Pre-Celtic Cling.

Altar-Skelter.

The Solstice Slap.

Mega Megalith.

And of course, the hardest: La Druid Druid.

 


 

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  • ALISON OSIUS, Senior Editor, has been climbing for 40 years and in the past taught climbing in North Wales, California, Washington State and New Hampshire. She competed at national and international climbing events from World Cups to the X Games. She is author of the biography Second Ascent: the Story of Hugh Herr; a former newspaper columnist and a writer published in 50 magazines, newspapers and anthologies; past president (first woman pres.) of the American Alpine Club; and winner of the 2007 AAC Literary Award. She has a Master’s Degree from the Columbia University.

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