Glendalough – 1.5 towers is better than none

Glendalough is one of my favourite crumbly old ruins sites and that’s not just because it boasts 1.5 round towers. Nestled in a valley in the Wicklow Mountains, the drive to it from any direction takes in some gorgeous scenery. The ruined monastery itself isn’t too shabby when it comes to its location either. Situated an hour from Dublin city centre, the area is popular with hikers who enjoy its many walking trails. As of 2020, there are nine marked walking trails

The monastery at Glendalough was founded by St. Kevin who died in 617AD. He was a hermit so it isn’t clear how much monastery building can be ascribed to him. Still, the site went on to become quite a significant monastic settlement. Even today, there are numerous ruins to be found and not just at the main site. This is where the stand-alone round tower and the one attached to a nearby church are to be found

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The round tower here has survived through the centuries fairly well. It is known that its roof fell in at some point. There is an old photograph taken around 1870 which shows it with its roof missing. It was rebuilt from the original stones a few years later. It stands close to the ruined cathedral and is mostly built from local granite. 30m in height, it is one of the more impressive towers.

glendalough1_stats

 

The Partial Tower

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St. Kevin’s Kitchen. Not the local tea-room

St. Kevin’s Church, more commonly known as St. Kevin’s Kitchen is not too far away from the tower. This is a little 12th century church which has a partial round tower attached to its roof. It’s the “chimney” that gives the church its kitchen nickname. The tower would have served as the church’s belfry and is accessed from there. Sadly, the church is locked up so all anyone can do is look in through the gate. Still, it is an interesting variation on the classic round tower. It is believed that the church and the tower were built in the 12th century. The tower may have been a slightly later addition to the church.

glendalough2stats

Visit date: 5th March 2013

Getting There

Glendalough is easy to find and to access. The area is a popular hiking destination so there are car parks and good facilities. The monastery can be accessed by the original gateway. It is the only surviving medieval gateway to a monastic settlement in Ireland so that’s worth walking through. There is also a visitor centre on the site but unlike at Clonmacnoise, you don’t have to walk through it (and pay) in order to visit the extensive ruins.

Click on a thumbnail to view the gallery

The third (missing) tower I haven’t visited yet

Trinity Church isn’t part of the main monastic site at Glendalough. A ruined church, there are 18th century drawings of it with a round tower attached to its roof. A storm in 1818 led to the collapse of the tower. It can be seen from the road on Google Maps.

 

St. Mullins – so where’s the tower?

St. Mullins in rural Carlow is one of those sites where there’s very little round tower to be seen. Yet, it is still somewhere worth visiting if you’re interested in crumbly old ruins. There is plenty more to see besides the stump of the round tower in this pretty location.

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St Mullins, as seen from the top of the nearby Norman Motte

The original monastery was founded by St. Moling who was Bishop of Ferns in the 7th century. He died in 696. He may have been descended from a King of Leinster, though a lot of his back story sounds more like mythology than fact. Before establishing the monastery here, he was a monk in Glendalough. The Venerable Bede, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, referred to him as “”good and wise man, excellently versed in the knowledge of the Scriptures”. The 8th Century Book of Mulling (now digitized and available online) was possibly written here. It has been speculated that it is a copy of an earlier book. Possibly even one dating back to St. Moling’s time.

St Mullins Round Tower
This is all that remains of the tower. It was found in 1880 during excavations by the Office of Public Works

The round tower (or what’s left of it) is built from granite. It now stands just 1 metre in height, with five courses of masonry.  The church it stands beside was built at a later date. While it goes without saying that it is a real shame the tower has all but disappeared, its stump does give a good idea of how these towers were constructed.

St Mullins Round Tower 2

st-mullins-stats

Getting There

The roads to St. Mullins won’t win any prizes for wideness or straightness. It is easy to find though and there’s plenty of room to park. It is something of a popular local beauty spot so there are public toilets close to the graveyard and a cafe beside the nearby river.

Visit date: 5th March 2020

Kinneigh – The one with the hexagonal base

The monastery at Kinneigh was founded in the 6th century by the wonderfully named St. Mocholmóg. Little is known about the monastery or its founder. All that remains is the unusual round tower which stands on a rocky outcrop to the rear of a cemetery.

The lower 6 metres of the tower are hexagonal in shape. This section houses the basement and entry floors. The skill with which the tower transitions from being hexagonal to round suggests that this was the work of a particularly talented master mason. The work bears some resemblance to cathedral towers in Europe, suggesting that this could have been built around the 12th century. The tower itself is built from slate, a material local to the area. The base of the tower cracked quite severely in the past, possibly because of its hexagonal shape. It would appear that the classic cylindrical shape is the best design for these structures.

These days there is no access into the tower. Brian Lalor, whose book on round towers is well worth a read, climbed the tower in the 1980s. He has some useful observations about it, starting with a reference to the rickety metal internal ladders. At least one of these ladders is now gone, saving or denying visitors a hair-raising climb to the top. It’s up to you which description you prefer…

The entrance floor is thought to be original and made from large slate slabs. It has a rectangular hole in its centre, which gives access to the basement. The upper floors in the tower are made from rough poured concrete. It is unknown when the tower had a cap on it.

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Just to the west of the tower is St. Bartholomew’s Church of Ireland. It was built around 1857. During this time, the tower was again put to use as a belfry. This might explain the concrete upper floors. The top 1.5m of the tower may be work done to help fit the bell. According to the Irish Round Towers website, the bell was removed and is now on display in the museum at Charles Fort, Kinsale.

There isn’t a lot else to see here. St Bartholomew’s church is still in use but closed up most of the time. Inside the grave yard is a slab commemorating the people buried there during the Great Famine of the 1840s, plus victims of a different sort. As to whether it’s worth visiting especially, the jury is out. The tower is an interesting curio but there isn’t much else to see here.

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Getting There

Kinneigh is out in the countryside so be prepared for some nice, winding country roads. Unless there happens to be hordes of round tower enthusiasts visiting at the same time, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding somewhere safe to park your car.

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 21.5m
Diameter at Base: 6m
Height at Door-Sill: 3.24m
Suggested Date: 12th Century

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

Visit date: 22nd August 2019

 

Ferns – the one with the unusual round tower

Ferns, Co. Wexford is a fascinating place in its own right and I plan to write a little bit more about it soon. For now, I’ll concentrate on the round tower which is is part of the site.

Ferns is closely associated with Dermot MacMurrough (Diarmaid MacMurchada), the King of Leinster who was deposed from his throne in 1166. In an effort to regain his title and his lands, he travelled abroad in either 1167 or 1168 to seek help from King Henry II of England. This led to some Anglo-Norman Lords from south Wales invading Ireland in 1169/1170 and the beginnings of English involvement in Ireland.

Dermot MacMurrough's Grave
The final resting place(?) of Dermot MacMurrough. The grave is marked with the broken shaft of a high cross.

MacMurrough is also associated with the Augustinian Abbey which is where the round tower comes into the picture. The Abbey was founded by him in 1158 but was burned around 1160. MacMurrough had it rebuilt. Presumably the tower/belfry was built at this time. The Abbey was plundered in the 14th century during the wars triggered by Robert the Bruce’s brother Edward invading Ireland. It was still in existence in the 16th century when King Henry VIII was suppressing the monasteries. It was recorded at the time as consisting of a church and belfry, a dormitory, a chapter house and a hall. The Abbey had 600 acres of land at the time.

Ruins of Abbey and Round Tower in Ferns. St. Edan's Cathedral is in the background
Ruins of Abbey and Round Tower in Ferns. St. Edan’s Cathedral is in the background

These days, all that remains is the belfry (round tower) and the ruins of its attached church. Because the tower isn’t free-standing like most round towers and is only round for its upper half, there are some who don’t consider it to be a proper round tower. On the other hand, there are some examples of towers with unusual shaped bases and which are attached to churches. Or as Brian Lalor puts it in his book “If it isn’t an early medieval Round Tower, than what is it?”. It has similarities with the free-standing round tower at Kinneigh, Co. Cork. All of which are good enough for me.

The tower has a doorway and a brick spiral staircase can be seen through the locked gate. It is believed that the internal staircase dates from the 17th century

Click on a thumbnail below to open the gallery

Getting There

The tower is in the middle of a field behind St. Edan’s Cathedral. There is plenty of street parking nearby.

Is it worth visiting? Absolutely. Aside from the ruins here, there is lots to see in Ferns. Seeing as I’m confined to the house because of Covid-19, I might just write about it next.

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 18.24
Square Base: 2.9m x 2.9m
Diameter of base at circular section: 2.9m
Suggested Date: 12th Century

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

 

Kilkenny – this one is climbable!

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I nearly got locked into the cathedral grounds overnight when taking this photo (oops!)

The round tower in Kilkenny stands beside the rather wonderful and historic St. Canice’s Cathedral. It is a complete tower, although it lacks the usual capped roof. Instead, the top of the tower is a low stone wall with a modern day cage around it. This is to stop people who’ve climbed to the top of it (yes!) from falling off. The ground is a long way down – just over 30 metres in fact. And yes, it does lean a bit but let’s not think about that. The cathedral and the tower are built on top of a hill, which gives it a fine view over Kilkenny. It is thought that this led to the tower doubling up as a watchtower and why the roof was either removed or not added in the first place.

The original monastery here was founded by St. Canice in the 6th century. The original church for which the tower was a belfry has vanished without a trace. The doorway of the tower faces away from the cathedral, suggesting that the church stood elsewhere.

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Weather permitting, the tower can be climbed. As you can see from this photo, the weather was not permitting on this particular day.

The original ladders and floors in the tower are long gone but happily, it can still be climbed. There are a number of wooden floors and connecting ladders which will bring you right up to the top. It’s probably not a climb for the faint-hearted or anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. The interior of of the tower is quite small and the climb to the top involves ascending a series of steps which are glorified wooden ladders. Still, if you make it to the top, the view is worth the effort. There are so few of these towers which can be ascended, it’d be a shame to pass up the opportunity.

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A more youthful me atop the tower

Getting There

The cathedral and tower are best visited on foot. Parking is limited in the area and a quick glance at Google Streetview  might dissuade you from driving the lane-way that goes past the front gate 😉  There is ample parking in the city’s car parks (Market Yard and Market Cross Shopping Centre are 5 minutes walk away). Besides, nobody visits Kilkenny just for the tower…

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 31m
Diameter of Base: 4.77m
Height of Door Sill: 3.3m
Suggested Date: 11th century

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

Timahoe – the one with the fancy doorway

Timahoe is a village about 12km south of Portlaoise, Co. Laois. It’s a rather pretty place and more importantly, from this blog’s point of view, it has a round tower! A rather fine one at that.

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Timahoe gets its name from a monastery which was founded by St. Mochua in the 7th century (Tígh Mochua = St. Mochua’s Church). Little remains of this monastery now, apart from the tower. The former church which stands alongside the tower was built much later and is now a heritage centre.

St. Mochua founded a monastery here sometime in the 7th century. He is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters as having died in 637AD and that “His wondrous acts are mainly legendary”. Now that is what you call an obituary 😀

The tower itself is believed to date from the 12th century and is built from sandstone (bottom 3m) and limestone. It is leaning a little but it is fully intact. What’s striking about it, apart from it being in such good condition, is the doorway. It is unique – no other tower has a Romanesque style doorway. It is also quite a wide tower at its base. 5.58m. The tower itself stands 29.26m and the door sill 4.5m from the ground.

Timahoe (4)

There is little else of note to be seen in the churchyard but it is in a rather nice setting. The ruins near the tower probably stand on the spot of where the original church originally stood. Most of what is there now dates from the 17th century, with parts of an older 15th century church included in its wall. timahoe_2

Click on a thumbnail to open the gallery

Getting there

The tower is very easy to find and access. It’s visible from the roads leading into Timahoe and is in a churchyard close to the village green. Simply cross a footbridge and you’re there. There’s plenty of car parking space around too.

Vital Tower Stats

measuring

Height: 29.36m
Diameter at Base:5.58m
Height at Door-Sill: 4.3m
Suggested Date: 12th Century

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

There’s a round tower in Seir Kieran? Ye Gods!

To Irish people of a certain age, the mention of the name Seir Kieran will most likely conjure up memories of the 1980s and 1990s. The days when Offaly could field competitive hurling teams, always featuring handy players from the Seir Kieran GAA club in their. Ah, those were the days…

The Seir Kieran club is located in the small village of Clareen and gets its name from the nearby monastery which has all but vanished. Just like its round tower really

seir_kieran_round_tower
Seir Kieran Round Tower ^

The monastery, known as Saighir, was founded by St. Ciarán the Elder. (Seir Kieran is simply an Anglicisation of the monastery name and its founder). He was given this name to differentiate him from St. Ciarán who founded Clonmacnoise. There is quite a bit of confusion about St. Ciarán’s life and plenty of rabbit holes to go down if you want to figure it all out! The basic facts seem to be that Ciarán was born in the 5th century, possibly in Cape Clear, Co. Cork. He was a Christian before St. Patrick’s arrival into Ireland and may have been studying abroad by then. He seems to have been ordained a Bishop in Rome prior to his return to Ireland. His plan was to be a hermit and he settled in Saighir. However, instead of being left in peace to do hermitty things, people started to flock to him and the place turned into a thriving monastery. In time, Ciarán’s monastery became the burial place for the Kings of Osraige (Ossory), something that would have had quite some status at the time. Ciarán met St. Patrick and became one of his helpers. He became the first Bishop of Ossory – that title continues to this day though the seat is elsewhere.

Over time, Saighir fell into decline. It wasn’t helped by being raided by the Vikings but being superseded by Aghaboe Abbey 30km away was the death knell really. It was finally dissolved in 1568, as part of King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Little remains of St Ciarán’s monastery or the round tower. There is now a 19th century Church of Ireland church built on the site. It is possible that it is standing in much the same place as the original monastery church would have stood. The church (which I haven’t been inside) contains a number of early medieval memorial slabs which probably were here prior to it being built. The round tower is close by but there isn’t a lot to see now.

There are just 6 courses of stones remaining of the tower overground and it is sitting in a field at a lower level to the rest of the adjoining grave yard. The basement can still be seen and taking that into account, it brings its height to 2.9m high. Its diameter at the base is 5.14m. Still, it is possible to see just how thick the walls of these towers were.

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The entrance gate to the tower was added later. There is a bullaun stone embedded in the wall of the tower under the gate. Nobody knows what these were for but they are often found in old ecclesiastical sites.

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Elsewhere, there is the base of a 10th century high cross. And that more or less sums up what’s to be found here.

Seir Kieran (3)

Date of Visit: 22nd May 2009

Getting there

The site is just outside the village of Clareen. It is signposted from the road and is easy to get to (link).

Whether it’s worth it or not is debatable. There is quite a bit of history attached to this monastery and to St. Ciarán but not a lot to see if you’re a tower spotter.

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 2.9m
Diameter at Base: 5.14m
Height at Door-Sill: Unknown
Suggested Date: Unknown

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

Round Towers: The Start of an Occasional Series

I’ve been a bit of a tower enthusiast for as long as I can remember. As a small child, no journey in my parents’ car was complete without me spotting water towers and excitedly pointing them out to them. Sigmund Freud would’ve had a field day 😀 Anyway, I came to my senses and decided that water towers were rather underwhelming and really not worth seeking out. Instead, I turned my attention to round towers.

These are somewhat enigmatic, narrow, cylindrical stone towers which were built almost 1,000 years ago mostly in Ireland. Just three of them exist abroad; one in the Isle of Man, two in Scotland.  Even at that, it’s likely there was an Irish hand or two involved it their construction. The first one I ever saw was O’Rourke’s Tower in Clonmacnoise and it made quite an impression (“What happened to the roof? Where’s the door?”). When I moved into my teens, I led my cousin and her friends on an expedition to explore the nearby round tower in Swords. These towers also inspired me to make a collage at primary school but more of that later.

ORourkes_tower_1
O’Rourke’s Tower, Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly
cloigtheach
Cloigtheach/Round Tower as depicted on an old Ordnance Survey map

The clue to what an Irish round tower is lies in the Irish name for them. Cloigtheach means “bell house” or belfry. Indeed, some of these towers still stand beside the churches for which they were built.

It is believed that 80(ish) of them were built between the 10th and 13th centuries. There are references to some of them in ancient writings, such as the Irish Annals. The first reference to one dates back to 950AD when the Vikings burned one in Slane, Co. Meath. The latest one was in Annaghdown Co. Galway in 1238. Both these towers have sadly vanished without a trace. As of 2020, there are 74 of them which can be visited. Some are in very good condition and there are still two of them which can be can be climbed (Kilkenny and Kildare). The tower on Devenish Island, Co. Fermanagh has also been climbable but it is unclear whether it is still the case. If anybody knows for sure and lets me know, I will happily amend this post. The others are in various states of repair; going from towers which still have their roofs to those which barely exist at all.

Despite the towers being labelled as Cloigtheachs, my primary school teachers didn’t get the memo. Being told that the towers were used as safe refuges for the monks and their treasures when marauding Vikings came-a-raiding fired my imagination. Aged 10 or 11, I made a collage of a daring monastery raid using felt and some other scraps of cloth which were lying was lying around in the classroom. The collage is long gone of course but you will be delighted to know that I’ve replicated it using modern technology. Sadly, drawing apps don’t give you the same smell of glue as 1980s art classes. What the teachers didn’t tell us was that (a) round towers can’t actually hold many people/things and (b) they’re just about the worst place you could hide out in from raiders. They are eminently burnable. Given the shape of the towers and the wooden floors that were in them, they had the potential to become deadly furnaces if they were set on fire. And it appears that that is what happened sometimes. There are records of towers being set on fire and people dying in them. The King of Fermanagh met his end in the tower on Devenish Island in County Fermanagh. The son of the King of Tara was murdered in Kells. The tower at Dysert O’Dea in County Clare was burned at some point. Nobody knows when or why but there is still a crack in its wall.

viking raid
A Viking raid on a fictional monastery. Not based on true events.

No two round towers are alike. There are variations in the building materials used, the style of the doors and windows and in the width and height of them. Still, they all follow a certain formula. They’re slender, stone towers which stand up to 40 metres in height. Their doorways tend to be located 2-3 meters from the ground and can only be accessed by a ladder. The windows are higher up in the tower and are narrow slits. Most of the towers are/were topped with a conical shaped roof. The doors of the towers face the west doorway of the churches they were a bell-tower for. And despite their heights, none of the towers appear to have had particularly deep foundations. Despite this, most of them are still standing

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The image on the left isn’t my handwork (I think you can see who the real artist is here…) but it gives a good idea of what the interior of the towers was like. I found it on Pinterest so if by some chance someone knows who drew it, I will happily give credit for it.

Each tower had a basement and then a series of floors going from the doorway right up to the top of the building. It is thought that the floors were connected by ladders. Having climbed the tower in Kilkenny, I can confirm that this isn’t for the faint-hearted. There wasn’t always much room inside the towers either so it’s debatable how many things were ever stored in there.

In the coming weeks, I shall write a little about the round towers I have visited. Here is a selection of them. Being a biased Offaly woman, I plan to start where the madness all began – Clonmacnoise.

round_tower_collage

 

Came for the signal station, fell for the scenery

mizen_head
Next stop, America!

Mizen Head is Ireland’s equivalent of Land’s End in the UK. In other words, it’s almost Ireland’s most southerly point but doesn’t quite manage that. That honour falls to the nearby Brow Head which is probably best known to people who like to point out that particular piece of trivia. Anyway, regardless of which headland you’re heading for, getting there can be a somewhat hair-raising experience. The roads are of the narrower, twistier variety and some of the locals seem to be wannabe Formula 1 drivers. So be on your guard, especially at bends.

A Fog Signal Station was built at the tip of Mizen Head in 1909. It was manned until 1993, after which it became a visitor centre. The original visitor centre was housed in the Lightkeepers’ Quarters until 2001, when the new visitor centre was built. There are still interesting exhibits in these old buildings. These include some of the old equipment used by the Lightkeepers, maps and charts. There is a stunning mural dedicated to the birds of the area in one of the buildings which is pure eye candy. Guglielmo Marconi carried out some of his earliest trans-Atlantic radio transmissions from the nearby village of Crookhaven (you can read more about it here) and there is information and equipment about his work in the radio room.

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The best known feature at the Mizen Head Fog Signal Station is the beautiful suspension bridge which spans a gorge between the mainland and the tip of the headland. The original footbridge was constructed in 1909 and was one of the first bridges to use precast elements. It was the largest bridge of its kind at the time, with a span of 50m. In the early 2000s, it reached the end of its lifespan. It was decided to demolish the bridge and replace it with an almost identical replica. The new one is wider but is still built from reinforced concrete. If you want to nerd out and read all about the demolition of the old bridge and the construction of the new one, you can take a look at this

mizen_head_99_steps
The 99 Steps

Mostly though, it’s the scenery that takes your breath away. Even though you can see that it was an overcast day when I was there, it did little to diminish the impact of the surroundings. It also made me wish I’d bothered to listen more closely in geography class because all around were spectacular real-life examples of all sorts of things we were told about. It’s largely Devonian sandstone in the area and you can really see evidence of how the landscape was formed

mizen_head_folding.jpg
Folding
mizen_hut
Radio Signal Hut. One careful owner

The walk out to the signal station itself is punctuated by various exhibits and viewing platforms. These include a sea arch (revives memories of geography class again) and a replica of a floor from the Fastnet Rock lighthouse which is 15km away, out in the Atlantic Ocean)

mizen_bridge_stitch

The Visitor’s Centre is worth a mention too. It has plenty of information, photographs and models of the area. Kudos too to the gift shop for not having cheesy new-wave Celtic mystic trip playing as you browse. And after doing all that walking and exploring, I couldn’t wait to tuck into the haddock and chips which were on the menu in the visitor centre’s cafe.

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Brownshill Dolmen – best not caught under this one

The Brownshill Dolmen can be found not too far outside Carlow town. What’s nice about this one is that it’s easy to get to. There’s a car park outside and a fenced-off walkway that leads from there to the dolmen itself. So although you still feel like you’re almost in someone’s field, you’re safe from marauding bulls, crops that behave like Triffids and erm…I’ll stop now.

Anyway, if you’re in search of a good dolmen, you can’t do much better than the Brownshill Dolmen. There are approximately 190 of them in Ireland, though they can also be found in other European countries and in Asia. This one has never been excavated, possibly because its capstone is estimated to weigh 150 tons. How the people who built it roughly 5,000 years ago managed it is sadly lost in the mist of times. It is believed that this one is the largest in Europe.

Dolmens usually consist of 2-3 stones, topped by a large capstone. It is believed that they would have originally been topped by mounds of stones. These have long since vanished, leaving behind a “skeleton”. Although they’re generally described as being tombs, there isn’t any concrete evidence one way or the other to say for sure that they were.