THEY loom large and mysterious in corners inviting wonder at how they were built. The countryside of Wales and Gwent is scattered with standing stones, stone circles and burial chambers. Author CHRIS BARBER investigates these strange monuments from another age in his new book, Megaliths of Wales.

FOR those interested in the prehistoric past, Wales is a fascinating place to explore for it is virtually crammed with an assortment of megalithic monuments. Also of interest is the folklore associated with these sites; stories with a hint of magic and generally a touch of humour, that have been passed on by word of mouth over the centuries.

I first took an interest in this subject in 1975 when I decided to visit and photograph every stone monument in Gwent, in order to gather material for a book on the subject. In due course I decided to extend my explorations to the whole of Wales and this led to the publication my earlier books Mysterious Wales and The Ancient Stones of Wales.

The first of these books has recently been republished after being out of print for a number of years, and I have now replaced the other book with this new title which gives a fresh insight into the subject and is richly illustrated.

In order to visit and locate some of these ancient monuments you often have to be a walker with good map and compass skills for sometimes you have to ascend windswept hillsides or cross extensive moorland. It is always satisfying when you succeed in reaching a remote site which may be rarely visited by anyone, yet the spirit of the past still lingers. It is a riddle in the landscape waiting to be solved.

My book provides descriptions of some of the largest, tallest and best preserved examples that can be visited. Many of them are remarkable feats of construction, involving hewing and transporting large blocks of stone over long distances to be erected for reasons unknown.

These monuments were erected up to four thousand years ago during a time when prehistoric man must have felt closer to nature and we can only ponder on his purpose in erecting these ancient monuments.

The best examples in Gwent are the three standing stones in a field near the village of Trellech on the edge of the Wye Valley. They point to the sky at crazy angles and the reason why they were placed there is an unsolved mystery. Fred Hando, the well-known Gwent historian was fascinated by these stones and it was he who recorded the legend that a character called Jack o’ Kent in order to impress the Devil, threw these stones to this spot from the summit of Ysgyryd Fawr about 12 miles away, near Abergavenny.

Gwent’s only surviving stone circle can be found by making an ascent of Mynydd Llwyd (Grey Hill) to the north-west of Caerwent. It is 32 feet in diameter and situated at an altitude of 900 feet above sea level. There are two outlying stones about 6 feet tall and it is an intriguing fact that they are in line with the midwinter sunrise.

A fine example of a cromlech (burial chamber) is Gaer Llwyd which stands in a field near crossroads on the B4235 Usk to Chepstow road at an altitude of 700 feet.

Five of the supporting stones remain and the covering stone which has slipped out of position measures 12 feet by 5 feet and is about 10 inches thick Just to the west of Cardiff, is Tinkinswood Cromlech which has the largest capstone (covering stone) in Britain, measuring 28 feet by 18 feet and about 2 feet thick it weighs over 40 tons.

A short distance away is St Lythan’s cromlech, which appears on the front cover of my book. According to legend, the capstone, measuring twelve by 8 feet is supposed to spin three times on Midsummer’s Eve.

Legends attached to these sites have been made up by country folk to account for their existence and purpose, and despite being unbelievable they are at the same time amusing and fascinating. Some stories suggest that they have the ability to come alive at certain times of the year, to uproot themselves from the ground and to go for a walk or make their way to a nearby river, for a drink or a swim.

The Druidstone, near St Mellons in Gwent is over 10 feet tall and when a cock crows at midnight it is said to heave itself out of the ground and go for a drink in the River Rhymney.

The Growing Stone at Glangrwyney, near Crickhowell is about 13 feet tall and there is a local tradition that it is impossible to accurately measure its height for it is constantly growing in size.

But the question arises, why was so much energy devoted to erecting these monuments? It has been demonstrated that stone circles have an astronomical significance and dowsers claim to have detected a hidden force in the stones, that waxes and wanes according to the phases of the moon. It is shown how quartz contained in the stones appears to cause fogging on photographs and other strange effects.

It is significant that in modern times there has been an increase in the use of quartz crystals and silicon chips in the ever-expanding computer industry. They are also used in watches, radios and sonar technology.

Black and white film is best for showing up this phenomenon of ultraviolet light for it does not seem to work with digital cameras. It would seem that film can pick up wavelengths that the human eye cannot see. The best results for these experiments occur on the day before a new moon and on days before a full moon, for then the energy is strongest.

Dowsers have discovered that in a stone circle, each stone is predominantly positive or negative and oppositely charged to its neighbour. The polarity changes six days after the new moon. It is significant that the moon exerts a gravitational pull on the earth and this affects the tides. When the moon is closest to the earth, its gravitational pull is greatest, and a full moon produces a marked increase in magnetic activity.

It would seem that these megaliths were laid out to a fixed plan and erected by an intelligent people. In 1967, Professor Alexander Thom published his research, having surveyed more than 600 megalithic sites in Britain and France.

He concluded that prehistoric man had laid them out with astonishingly precise engineering and skill, very often in astronomical alignment. There are more than 40,000 megalithic monuments still standing in Western Europe and Britain has more stone circles than any other country in the world.

A large number have been destroyed through the passing centuries and the ones remaining probably only represent about 10 per cent of those that originally existed. There may well have been over 10,000 in Wales alone.

Richly illustrated, my book gives location details of these monuments which were erected by man at a time when he must have perhaps possessed now forgotten knowledge that gave him a closer relationship with the Earth. On reading my book you will perhaps feel compelled to go in search of the mysterious megaliths of Wales and ponder on their purpose.

Megaliths of Wales published by Amberley Books price £16.99 and is available from all good bookshops. ISBN 978-1-4456-7400-1

Chris Barber MBE FRGS was born in Newport and now lives near Abergavenny. He is the author of 34 books which cover such subjects as: prehistoric standing stones, industrial archaeology, hill walking, local history, and the myths and legends of Wales. His many interests and achievements have been recognised with an entry in ‘Who’s Who in the World’ and he is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In 2008 he was awarded the MBE for ‘Service to the Community and Tourism’.