We are all time travellers. We just happen to be moving towards the future at the pace of one day at a time. But the past is all around us and, with the help of the right person, it’s possible to find it. John Swann of the Travelling History Company is one of those people whose enthusiasm for the subject can bring history (and pre-history) to life no matter where you happen to be.
This was made clear during our stop at the 16th-century Lion Inn in Trellech (or Trelleck or Trelech or Treleck … take your pick on the spelling), where we enjoyed a cold drink and pored over some of the artefacts John brought with him. Whether as part of his educational programmes at schools or on field-based excursions like this one, John said he is a believer in the power of authentic artefacts. And I have to say I agree: there is just something about handling a genuine piece of the past. Whether a coin from the time of Claudius or a bronze axe head, it always piques my curiosity to imagine the long journey it’s been on to get to the present.
Upon leaving the Lion, we crossed the street to investigate the church of St. Nicholas. The first thing you notice about the church is its size: it seems inordinately large for what appears to be a rather small village. The majority of the construction dates to around 1300 when Trellech was one of the largest towns in Wales, and today the church is considered a well-preserved example of medieval architecture. This historic preservation extends to the churchyard itself, where it’s possible to see the medieval preaching cross—a meeting place and suitable platform for delivering sermons—and an earlier Saxon altar stone.
One interesting item moved inside for safekeeping is a 17th-century sundial that displays Trellech’s ancient landmarks: the mound of the Tump Terret, the enclosure of the Virtuous Well, and Harold’s Stones, a trio of standing stones that give the village its name (tri = three; llech = flat stone). It was these monuments that we set out to explore next.
The first of which, Tump Terret, is also known as Trellech Castle. Although it may not look like much today, it was once a motte-and-bailey castle constructed by the Normans sometime before 1231. The motte is the mound, on top of which would have been constructed a wooden or stone fortification known as the keep. The bailey was an enclosed courtyard adjacent to the motte and would contain the buildings necessary to service the keep, such as kitchens, stables, and forges. The Normans brought castle building to England with their invasion of 1066, and it’s strange to think that an architectural style that is practically synonymous with Britain was actually a European import.
Next up was Harold’s Stones, three large rocks aligned in a field. They take their name from King Harold, the last Saxon king of the 11th-century, and legend says they mark the spot where three Celtic chieftains were buried after he slayed them in battle. Another tale attributes them to the mythical giant Jack of Kent, who threw them from a nearby mountain to their present location after a contest with the devil.
The reality is far more interesting—if murkier—than either of these stories. The stones are dated to the Bronze Age and predate Harold by a good few thousand years. They are made of a local stone called puddingstone, which takes its name from its resemblance to Christmas pudding. But instead of raisins and cakey goodness, it is composed of rounded pebbles set in sandy sediment that has hardened like cement. John pointed out how these particular stones had quartz inclusions that made the stones sparkle and shine when the light hit them just right. Could this have been one of the reasons they were chosen by the residents of Trellech nearly 3,500 years ago?
The ultimate reason behind their construction, however, is lost in the mists of time. Many monuments of this type are supposed to be a calendar, aligning with the summer or winter solstice, but that’s not very clear at Trellech. John suggested a few other theories, such as they were used to bring communities together—after all, the amount of work that goes into moving and raising monoliths could certainly trigger community unity in the same way military boot camps foster team cohesiveness today. But I have to admit that I also liked one of the slightly more abstract possibilities, that they were used to serve as a distinguishing landmark and give the place an identity.* And, of course, there is no reason that there couldn’t be multiple reasons for their creation.
We finished off the day at the Virtuous Well, which is dedicated to St. Anne and has been used since antiquity to seek miracle cures. This summer’s drought conditions meant the water that usually bubbles up and flows from the well was no more than a trickle, and so we could enter the enclosure and settle in on the low seat to cool off and enjoy the surrounding landscape. Studies have shown that the water is high in iron, so it is probably no surprise that the people who drank from it felt better!
As for us, it was a great place to rest for a moment and reflect on the day. While our starting point of Chepstow Castle was the stereotypical view of the medieval past, it is sites like Lancaut that provide a real glimpse at how the majority of people lived and worked. In turn, Trellech shows the ebbs and flows of time, how large towns can be transformed into small villages, with ancient monuments serving as the constant upon which everything else revolves. Ultimately, I found this journey through the past a useful reminder that history is constantly around us—no time machine required.[ If you’re looking for a fascinating day out—or would like to get your students or children out of textbooks to experience a hands-on approach to history—do check out the Travelling History Company website for more information. For those not based in the UK, you can follow along with John’s activities on Facebook. ]
* Brand new research indicates that the people who used Stonehenge were from west Wales. Maybe the Welsh just had a thing for leaving standing stones at their settlements?
It was suggested that I include a map to share the location of where I’m blogging about. If there is something else you think would improve the weekly blog posts, drop me a line and I’ll see what can be done.