Reconstruction of an Iron Age roundhouse at Castell Henllys, S.Wales


Although English-born, my maternal grandparents (and therefore many more of my ancestors) were born in Wales; and over the past few years I have been feeling links with my Celtic ancestry which have been getting stronger. And one of the places I have experienced the strongest 'pull from my past' has been Castell Henllys.

Castell Henllys is a partially reconstructed Iron Age hill fort near the Welsh coast, within the Pembrokeshire National Park.It represents many different things to different people. To children it is a fascinating and magical place where they can go back through a 'time machine' in the woods to meet characters from the past, to learn ancient skills such as wool spinning, making fences from wattle and daub, and how to paint themselves with woad in preparation for battle. To some, like one elderly lady I encountered in the ladies lavatories, it is a 'damn long walk to look at some straw huts'. But to others, like myself, it represents an important link with our Iron Age predecessors.

The first time I visited Castell Henllys was whilst on holiday in the area with my husband, in about 1996,and was purely by chance. The two larger buildings are just visible from the main road,above the trees. Curiosity got the better of us so we followed the signs, and passing a large woolly mammoth (!), we arrived at the entrance.

Entrance to the Fort and enclosed village is through the small but very informative visitor centre.This contains a series of display boards, charting important periods of Welsh history.There is also a small gift shop for souvenirs,books, jewellery etc, and the staff are more than happy to answer questions or even take visitors on a guided tour of the site if required.Just behind the visitor centre is a small but pleasant picnic area amongst the trees, alongside the river which also provides a pleasant and relaxing stroll.

The path and steps up to the fort and enclosed village are indeed a long walk, but as you arrive at the top, puffing and panting, and the whole place comes into view, it is certainly worth it.

There are at present two large buildings (a third is currently being constructed now that sufficient funds have been raised) one containing several small sleeping areas with wooden partitions for privacy (!), complete with straw (for mattresses) animal hides and homespun rough woollen blankets to supplement the little warmth given out by the small fire in the centre. The other large hut I will mention later. Also scattered about the compound are smaller buildings, used for animal pens, raised grain or food stores, and even a smithy. There is also a recently discovered charcoal-burning pit to one side. The dwelling which is currently being reconstructed, is the largest on the site, and because of its size and position at the rear of the compound, overlooking the surrounding countryside and low lying land, is thought to have been the home of the tribal chieftain. All the modern buildings and pens have been constructed using the original excavated Iron age postholes.

Standing in the centre of the site and scanning the surrounding landscape the first impression is of both beauty and a strange combination of protection and vulnerability, with the distant hills and mountains providing plenty of advantages to spot the approaching enemy; but the dense woods at the bottom of the fort's steep defences would also have been able to conceal the latter. Combined with the village of Nevern with its ancient church, ogham carvings and ornate Celtic cross in the graveyard, just hidden over a near distant hill, and also Pentre Ifan, one of the many megalithic burial chambers in the area, high on the hill to the other side, the whole area has a very strong mystical and spiritual feel to it. Incidentally, Pentre Ifan cromlech was once known as 'Arthur's Quoit' after a certain legendary king.

If you pause in the centre of this Iron age village and stand with your eyes closed you can almost see and hear the approaching enemy creeping through the trees, preparing to charge the steep fort banks to attack.

On entering the second large dwelling, my first feeling was of claustrophobia, the inside being very dark and smoky with there being no windows or chimney for the fire smoke to escape from. However, once my eyes had become accustomed to the lack of light (the only source being a very small low door set in one wall), I felt a sense of welcome and homeliness, almost as if this is where I belong. So I sat down on one of the low rough wooden benches beside the small wood fire in the centre of the hut and made myself as comfortable as possible. Looking around me, the interior was very basic, with a pile of straw for bedding or animal feed (probably both) in one corner, several baskets of raw wool awaiting spinning and a few simple Iron Age tools. The walls were of a lightly coloured daub, decorated sparsely with images of animals and other Celtic designs. Closing my eyes and absorbing the atmosphere of this dark smoky home, I could feel and hear the movements and sounds of animals outside. Chickens gently clucking while scratching the sparse earth, and the Iron Age pigs snuffling in the dirt. I could sense the tribespeople going about their daily routines such as cooking, tending animals, even perhaps planning hunts or maybe a raid on an enemy village. The longer I sat there the more I felt as if, when I opened my eyes, that I too would somehow have been transported back to become part of the Iron age village and its life. Such is the feeling of familiarity and home that I am loath to leave it. I have been back to Castell Henllys a couple of times since my first visit and I still feel the same homecoming welcome.

As you leave the hill fort and walk down the steep path, past the Roman excavations, back to the car park and modern life, you pass statues and sculptures partially hidden amongst the trees and undergrowth, of animals and characters from the Mabinogion, all of whom have a tale to tell. Also, true to the Celtic tradition, there is a small spring and pool surrounded by trees which has been decorated with ribbons, beads and even carved shrunken heads, latter-day sacrifices and offerings to the gods of forests and streams.

- © Dawn Compton