Pentre Ifan is one of Britain’s most spectacular ancient wonders, yet surprisingly few people have heard of it, let alone visited this six thousand year old structure which is believed to be Britain’s oldest building. Its exact use or original appearance is unclear, but it is usually said to be a ‘dolmen’ a single chambered communal grave.
It consists of seven main stones. The largest, the capstone, is about five by two and a half metres by one metre in size and weighs an estimated 17 tonnes. It rests – in fact appears to balance precariously – on the tips of three others. Two of the remaining three stones appear to form a doorway, while the last is on its side, partially blocking the entrance.
The first question to strike the modern visitor is to ask how it was done in an age where stone age man lacked even horses to provide power. The answer is probably that most of the huge stones were relatively local and that they were laboriously lifted into place with levers, while smaller rocks were slipped in one by one to hold them in place. Eventually, with the propped-up structure in place, the supporting rocks were removed to leave the current dolmen.
The traditional theory is that the structure would have been covered with smaller stones, soil and turf, that over time this has eroded to leave just the basic structure. More recently archaeologists have suggested the construction of what has always been a spectacular structure using huge lumps of stone must have always been intended to be seen. They argue that the effort needed by stone age man to move and then manoeuvre colossal weights makes this even more likely. Thus they say the stones were not designed to hold human remains, but as an even more spectacular version of a standing stone.
Whatever its use or appearance, the structure must have fallen into disuse well before the arrival of the Romans, but it was rediscovered by early travellers to Wales. George Owen admired it in 1603 and Richard Tongue painted it in 1835. Half a century later it was one of only three Welsh monuments to be listed under the Ancients Monuments Act of 1882.
Pentre Ifan lies some 15 miles north west of Haverfordwest on the backroad (B4329) which runs across the Preseli Hills to Newport and Cardigan. It is particularly worth a visit on a gloomy day when the poor weather makes it even more spectacular. It also virtually guarantees you will have the place to yourself (entrance is free). It is about 45 minutes drive from Glebe House, but well worth incorporating into a trip to St David’s or New Quay.
While admiring the structure and puzzling how stone age man managed to manhandle such vast lumps of rock, you could also think about Stonehenge some 200 miles to the east. Much of this was constructed from locally-quarried Preseli bluestone – how on earth did they get it there? And if the Neolithic bug really begins to bite, the surrounding area is rich in similar sites such as Carreg Samson (near Abercastle, St David’s), Coetan Arthur (Newport) and Garn Turne (Wolfscastle). For a fuller list, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Scheduled_prehistoric_Monuments_in_north_Pembrokeshire