Park your chariot (or time machine) in the maes parcio (car park) and carefully follow the path through woodland by the pretty Nant (river) Duad. Here there be bats, otters and more – or so they say. Once there would have been bears and wolves too; but just be grateful for the bats and otters. You are skirting the defences of a real Iron Age hill fort, which was occupied from around 600BC until the 1st century AD, and which modern experts have recreated on the very site…
You pass prehistoric breeds of animals and reach the herb garden without incident. No one has challenged you (except at the ticket office), no one’s lobbing slingshots down on your head; so you climb to the main entrance, only to find it undefended – apart from a giant wicker man.
All too often things aren’t what you expect. The wicker man doesn’t look quite big enough for Edward Woodward and there is no sign of Christopher Lee. Just as well. My younger – and possibly overseas – reader might need to checkout the 1973 slightly dodgy cult film ‘Wicker Man’ at this point; or you might not. Back on the hill fort, it all seems rather peaceful; no threats from other tribes, visiting Druids, or even invading Romans. There are very convincing looking roundhouses and you spot the odd ancient Celt wandering about dressed in blankets or some-such, doing obviously fun/learning-type stuff with children.
Castell Henllys has been an internationally renowned archaeological training ground since 1981. It has been extensively excavated and is understood to have once been a high-status home for the Demetae tribe, accommodating perhaps 150 people. There was an adjacent farmstead that was settled into the sub-Roman period. Four replica roundhouses, all slightly different, have been constructed on the very foundations of the original prehistoric buildings. One of these has a 33 foot (10 metre) diameter and, unusually, an inner ring of timber posts as well as an outer ring supporting the frame. So, you step over the threshold into the slightly smoky gloom and …
It was an excellent idea to try to recreate the settlement and I hope more is done. There must have been a good deal of educated guesswork about the project, but it is certainly fascinating to see what has been made of the challenge. It is chiefly aimed at schoolchildren, I think – but it is a fabulous opportunity for all of us to learn a bit about how our prehistoric ancestors lived. Amongst other things, you can try your hand at bread making, building in wattle and daub, have your faces painted with woad (I’m pretty sure this needs urine to help make the dye), checkout the medicinal herbs and, presumably, get up close and personal with animals – if you like that sort of thing. There is a (relatively) large education centre on the site and it is an award-winning attraction.
Though it is easy to appreciate the effort that has gone into Castell Henllys, fascinating to see how the huts have been made, and then go inside, close your eyes and try to imagine what it was like 2,400 years ago, I personally found the place a little sanitised and primary school-ish; maybe that is both inevitable and intentional.
I liked the wicker man very much. Presumably, this a nod at the Gaelic festival of Beltane (Bel’s Fire), marking the beginning of summer on 1st May and involving Beltane cakes, fertility rituals and all manner of exciting pagan-type things. But the ghosts have been exorcised from Castell Henllys; I have had a greater sense of our ancestors at more deserted hill forts – and there are at least 2,000 in Britain, most dating from the Iron Age (around 750BC). But, then, there’s far less to see at those than there is at Castell Henllys.
On a final note, wondering about those Beltane cakes I came across several recipes on the Internet. Discounting those that contained unlikely exotic ingredients such as cardamoms, ginger and amaretto, it seems they were probably made from oatmeal, fat, eggs, milk and some form of sweetener – maybe honey. The cakes were baked on hot stones and the person who chose a burnt piece may have been sacrificed – possibly symbolically. Beltane is still celebrated by some, apparently. It is also known as Walpurgisnacht or the Eve of St Walburga’s Day.