Episode one asks if the mystery of Stonehenge lies in the bluestones of west Wales? The programme also shows how Swansea changed from a medieval town to a modern city after the World War II bombing raids, seen through the Commission’s Aerofilms collection of historic aerial photographs, and how nature has reclaimed the highest house in Wales.
Toby Driver, the aerial investigator of the Royal Commission, meets Professor Geoffrey Wainwright to examine the link between the bluestones of Stonehenge and the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire. Toby’s aerial discovery of the Banc Du enclosure nearby shows where New Stone Age people may have been living in these hills.
The east end of the Preseli ridge in Pembrokeshire is believed to have provided the 80 or so stones taken 250 km south to Stonehenge in Wiltshire soon after 2600 BC. The Carn Meini outcrops on Mynydd Preseli have become famous in archaeological literature as the geological source for the Stonehenge ‘bluestones’. In 1923 petrological examination confirmed the scattered outcrops of Carn Meini on the south-west of Mynydd Preseli as being the source of the distinctive blue-grey spotted dolerite with large white spots used in some of the earliest phases. In Pembrokeshire, a number of prehistoric monuments, including a ruinous cairn at Carn Menyn and Gors Fawr stone circle to the south, are also composed of this unusual rock.
Banc Du Neolithic causewayed enclosure lies at the western end of the Preseli ridge and is the first confirmed Neolithic enclosure in Wales and the mid-west of Britain – others no doubt await discovery. Banc Du is contemporary with the great megalithic tombs of the region such as Pentre Ifan which lies nearly 8 km to the north and the passage grave at Bedd-yr-Afanc 6 km to the north-east. This was also the period when fine metamorphic rocks were exploited in the area for the production of polished axes – as the nearest known settlement, Banc Du has profound implications for our understanding of the area in the fourth and third millennia BC and the social context of the megaliths.
Banc Du occupies the summit of a low hill overlooking the New Inn crossroads at the west end of the Preseli ridge. It was first discovered from the air by the Royal Commission in 1990. New aerial photography by Toby Driver in 2002 raised the possibility that Banc Du was an exceedingly rare Neolithic hill top enclosure defined by the low ramparts, these having been built in short sections leaving gaps in between. A ground survey undertaken by the Royal Commission suggested that an original enclosure had been subsequently enlarged with an outer bank. Research at the site formed part of a landscape study by SPACES (Strumble – Preseli Ancient Communities and Environment Study), in partnership with the Royal Commission. New work by Professors Geoffrey Wainwright and Tim Darvill included geophysical surveys to map the earthworks and other archaeological features, and the excavation of a trench across the inner earthwork. The excavation revealed a rampart which was originally well-built with a stone-walled outer face and timber lacing to the front and rear. The rock-cut ditch in front of the rampart was 2.8m wide and 1m deep. Overlying the early collapse of the stone facing to the rampart were two dark ash-rich layers containing charcoal from heather, hazel, alder and oak. Six radiocarbon dates were obtained from these deposits which showed that the initial silt in the ditch had accumulated at around 3650 BC whilst the middle fills of the ditch overlying the stone collapse contained material from the period 3000 – 2600 BC.
More than any other city in Wales, Swansea has been transformed over the past sixty years. David Thomas and Peter Wakelin investigate how a major collection of photographs recently acquired for the public by the Commission shows how it was rebuilt after the Luftwaffe’s bombs.
Swansea castle once commanded a thriving trading port at the heart of a powerful medieval lordship. Until 1941 the layout of the medieval town provided the blueprint for an emerging commercial centre, made wealthy on the profits of the industrial boom in the Swansea Valley in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Grand Victorian buildings sat side by side with overcrowded tenements, squeezed into narrow building plots defined by ancient streets and passages, all of which are clearly visible on a photograph taken by Aerofilms in 1923.
This town disappeared over a single weekend in 1941. Between 19 and 21 February 1,275 high explosive bombs and 56,100 incendiary bombs were dropped by the Nazis. 11,084 properties were damaged and 227 people were killed. The testimony of Sid Kidwell, who recalled the bombing for the Commission, provides a powerful insight into three nights that changed Swansea forever.
After the war, planners took the opportunity to rebuild with a modern vision. An Aerofilms photograph taken in 1950 shows the wide boulevards and modern buildings of the new centre. Retired architect Peter Ridgewell recalled for the Commission the difficulty of acquiring materials at the time, and also the requirements of the planners. This included a specific ban on providing living accommodation in the centre – a far cry from the crowded streets and crammed tenements of the pre-war town.
Royal Commission Investigator Louise Barker and Bob Silvester of the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust explore the remains of a grouse shooting estate set high on the moors of Mynydd Hiraethog, investigated as part of the Commissions Uplands Archaeology Initiative.
In the twentieth century large areas of the Hiraethog (Denbigh) moors were managed as grouse shooting estates. An evocative symbol of this sporting pastime is the gaunt ruins of Gwylfa Hiraethog (the watch-tower of Hiraethog) visible for long distances across the moor. This was once a shooting lodge, built in 1908 by millionaire and Liberal MP Hudson Ewbanke Kearley, the first Viscount Devonport. It replaced an earlier wooden chalet that had been imported in prefabricated sections from Norway in the early 1890s. The lodge was said to be the highest inhabited house in Wales and was also claimed to have had the widest views of any house in Britain. An early photograph shows an imposing Jacobean-style mansion, from the balcony of which Lloyd George famously addressed a large crowd.
Surrounding the lodge, Lord Devonport’s shooting estate comprised over 7,000 acres of prime moorland, the majority of which he held under lease. It was reported that in good years between 1,000 and 1,400 grouse were shot here. Common, but less obvious, features to be found are the lines of shooting butts, predominately small circular banks of earth that would have sheltered a single gun.
The Commission’s book on Mynydd Hiraethog will be published in 2010.