Exploring Castell Henllys Iron Age fort, Pembrokeshire
Paul Miles visits Castell Henllys Iron Age fort in the heart of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, for some ancient Celtic fun...
“Are you going to get your faces painted!?” teased the bus driver, when we boarded the 412 bus at Fishguard and asked to be dropped off at the turning for Castell Henllys. We were two men in our 40s, interested in learning about how the Celts lived. Would the only iron-age fort in Britain where roundhouses of mud and thatch have been constructed on the original site be overrun with unruly schoolchildren daubed in woad?
Just 35 minutes later, we were wandering down a country lane edged with orchids, campion and violets. After half a mile, beyond an abandoned cottage, a small church presents a curiosity in the form of a window shaped as a Star of David. A note in the porch explains that it was a gift from a local Jewish family that used the building as a synagogue.
Next, we passed a wooden totem pole carved with beasts and men, topped with a set of large antlers. We were leaving our world of modern religions and entering one where nature is worshipped but not before going through a car park to reception and paying an entrance fee. As we had arrived by public transport, we qualified for concession rate, just £3.50 each rather than £4.75.
A gurgling stream – Nant Duad – passes through the site, overhung with trees and more wildflowers. Otters have been seen here and we sat for a while, sipping coffee (nettle tea wasn’t an option from the drinks’ machine). Appropriately enough, there is little in the way of modern marketing: a few books on the Celts and some wooden toy swords in the reception but no café or multi-media experience, just a grass-roofed education centre and some audio-information points that are powered by winding a handle. The first ‘talking sculpture’ is near reception. Between squeaks of the mechanism, a lilting Welsh voice informs us that there was no electricity 2,600 years ago and that people would look after things well. “If you wanted a coat, you would have to sheer a sheep and then spin the wool before weaving it, or get your mum to help you.”
On top of a low hill, a circle of five beautifully thatched roundhouses look like something you might stumble across in the Amazon jungle, but surrounded by verdant pastoral land instead of impenetrable forest. We peek into a house, inside are bundles of thin wooden stems. This turns out to be willow, as, in another house, we watch as a woman dressed in a rustic brown jumper and long woollen skirt teaches a dozen children how to weave a basket and explains how the willow is first soaked in the stream. In another house, children are being taught how to make bread. They grind the wheat between stones, mix the flour with water and place it on a skillet over the fire in the centre of the smoke-darkened house. Then their Celtic ‘mum’ begins to paint their faces. “I give you the power of Cerenunnos, the god of hunting,” she says to the first boy, while tracing a delicate blue pattern over his forehead. The children are entranced and it is delightful to watch.
For adults, who are shy of getting their face painted, there are guided tours, twice a day (11.30am and 2.30pm) where incredibly knowledgeable guides such as Roger Anglezarke-Tyrer will enthuse about anything and everything to do with the people we now call the Celts, a word that means ‘hidden’ and lent its name to the kilt. You can even have a go at weaving your own kilt, using wool, from rare breed sheep (like the ones grazing in a meadow below the fort) and coloured with vegetable dyes.
From this vantage point on the hilltop, which is where the warrior caste would have lived, we can see the Preseli hills through the mist. “They were an enormously important trading route”, explains Roger. “Gold would have come from Ireland, brought ashore at what is now Fishguard and been carried over the hills to Foeldrigarn, a huge iron age hill fort with some 200 houses, where there is also a bronze age cemetery.”
One of the strangest tales he tells, is not just how the stones that make up Stonehenge were dragged from a quarry at the base of the Preseli hills, but that a new twist on the theory proposes that this ancient stone circle was relocated from a site just an arrow’s flight away. “We’re not sure if it’s true, but it’s good news for us,” he says, with a smile.
Castell Henllys appears in the Visitor Attractions section of our Guide to the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. The guide also includes a range of green (and gorgeous!) accommodation, the best places to find local food and some of the region's most sustainable activity providers.
>> Castell Henllys is owned and managed by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority. From more information, visit www.castellhenllys.com or call 01239 891319