It is unlikely we will ever know precisely how, or more significantly, why the stones were removed for use over one hundred and forty miles away, but they were to become the centrepiece of a complex that seems to have been central to the life of the whole of Britain, and perhaps even further afield, for nearly two thousand years. The latest research, by Prof Barry Cunliffe and others, suggests that these quarrymen and these builders spoke Welsh.
When these stones were quarried, the Preseli Hills were likely still thickly wooded, but the neolithic people had begun their work of clearance, and it would not be long before the hills took on the aspect of bleak wild moorland that they have today. But in our own eighteenth century, the improvers set to work, so that small fields were carved from the foothills: poor land, but sufficient for sheep and cattle: it has made a hard living for some ever since. Among these fields, on the southern flank of the hills, is the small church of St. John the Baptist at Morfil, looking down the bleak valley towards the hamlet of Puncheston. The church was stripped and given up years ago by the ecclesiastical authorities. It is now just a store for the adjoining farm. But there are two graves under the ivy and ground-elder in the churchyard, marking the resting-place of Erasmus Lewis and other members of the Lewis family of Lodor, another nearby farm. The last died in 1812. These are my mother's forebears.
My grandfather's grandfather left this lonely place to marry a Puncheston girl. That would have been about 1840. His son in turn joined the migration from rural hardship to the new industries of South Wales. My father's people made the same eastwards trek. And so in a few generations, and following my own parents, I find myself living in Devon. I have been here, with a few early interruptions , for forty years. It has been a good home to me, and now it would seem, not as alien to a Welshman as traditional Devonians might think.
As late as 700 AD the language of Devon, as well as of Cornwall, was Welsh, being supplanted by Anglo-Saxon English only slowly after that date. The nineteenth century idea of the Dark Ages gave rise to an impression that the Saxons arrived and drove all before them, so that the native people were forced to flee to a Welsh heartland. But even by the 1950's it was clear that this had never been the case. In the sixth century much of Devon was underpopulated or undeveloped; some of its inhabitants had already migrated across the sea to Brittany, taking their language and culture with them. By 658, the Saxons had arrived at the edge of Dumnonia, having defeated the Britons at a battle near Penselwood in Somerset. In the next half-century, they extended their settlements into and across the county. There was resistance, for the chronicles record the defeat of the last British king of Dumnonia some time in the early eight century; he had the proud Welsh name of Geraint. But it was probable that Saxon settlement did not encompass the whole of Devon for another hundred years. Prof. Hoskins, citing the very few historical resources available, is quite clear that the two people lived, if not happily then at least without too much strife, side by side. One might assume that this was made easier by their common religion, since the Britons had retained the Christian faith of their Roman overlords or had been evangelised subsequently; the Saxon invaders had for the most part taken to Christianity shortly before arriving at Devon. It would not have been difficult for the newcomers to find deserted or undeveloped land on which to make homes for themselves:; and the communities continued to abide by their own laws and customs until the Saxon law prevailed by a decree of Athelstan. By that time it can be understood that the culture of the Saxons, driven by military defeat and the need to acknowledge their overlordship (and after the Synod of Whitby their church) had finally prevailed. In due course, the two people melded into one and became indistinguishable: they all became Devonians.
Prof. Hoskins and his contemporaries were aware in a general sense of the survival of the pre-Anglo-Saxon people. His account in Devon identifies in an anecdotal way a physical type that forms a high proportion of the native population of the county, dark and broadheaded stalwart men... Mediterranean-looking people. He concludes that many pre-Saxon groups went on undisturbed in their hamlets and farmsteads. Modern research only confirms this. In 2015, the Wellcome Trust published the results of a national DNA survey, which recorded that the ancient tribes of Britain were still the basis of the modern population, if the mass movements of the last hundred years or so were disregarded. This is especially the case in the western side of the country, not just in the obvious areas of strong national identity, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, but in Lancashire, Devon and Cornwall. Those are areas which appear to have succumbed to Anglo-Saxon power and culture without an overwhelming influx of Saxon population. The survey suggests that this is the more surprising because these areas were themselves genetically quite distinct: the tribes of Devon were easily distinguishable from those of Cornwall even after fifteen hundred years.. Even within the areas untouched by Saxon influence, there appear to be quite distinct genetic patterns: the tribes of North and South Wales were clearly just that; the differences between north and south Pembrokeshire are not solely attributable to subsequent Norman settlement in the South, but to an already established genetic pattern.
But what gave unity to all these western areas was the language and culture they shared. Barry Cunliffe's summation of modern research, in Britain Begins (2012), concludes that by about 3000 BCE a new language had already spread from western Spain all along the people of the Atlantic shores, what has come to thought of as a common Celtic language which soon became Welsh. Gaelic, Cornish - and the language of Devon and the West Country too. It was a language borne by trade and the communication it required. The traffic might equally account for what Hoskins saw as the Mediterranean physical type in the people of Devon. And those of Wales too.
So it may be that when I stand on Ryder's Hill and survey the Dartmoor landscape around me, dotted with the homes and tombs of Bronze Age people, I am not too far removed from the bare Preseli Hills of my ancestors.