I recently revisited Castell Henllys, Pembrokeshire, after over a decade since my last visit.
Run by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, this is an important Iron Age hillfort because of the sustained archaeological excavations of the site led by Professor Harold Mytum. As a heritage site, this is a fabulous place to visit and learn about the Iron Age: a small museum with up-to-date displays about Iron Age life. Leaving the museum, you make your way up to the hillfort past a new massive monumental chair for reasons not apparent:
then over a bridge…
beside the stream, through woodland beauty…
then up the steep hill which has multiple paths and a newly constructed disabled access path. En route one might encounter ancient sheep breeds and also huge pigs troughing…
to the site itself. One can see defences revealed by excavation, the original earthworks and reconstructed entrance. Within, there are reconstructed granaries and houses, as well as quite bizarrely a sinister wicker man. Within the dwellings are plenty of artefacts and furnishings to give a flavour of Iron Age living and crafts.
In 2014, it became a ‘hub for prehistory’ in North Pembrokeshire, meaning I guess that it is treated as a focal point to encourage visitors to explore other archaeological sites in the area. Over 6,000 school kids visit and learn about the Iron Age each year and it is award winning.
I went there in the capacity of a normal visitor with my family on holiday. Two critical comments in this regard:
- Where is the archaeology? The visitor gets a valuable, rich, detailed but static ‘life in the Iron Age’ story from the displays, the guidebook and the reconstructions of buildings with some fabulous reconstructions of artefacts and furniture within. You can see the earthworks of course, but still, there is nothing on the heritage boards or in the guidebook (over half of which is dedicated to other sites in the area; perhaps part of the ‘hub’ status) giving detail about the archaeological sequence, features, finds or interpretations that are specific to this particular hillfort. And of course, there are no excavation reports and no popular syntheses available. In this regard, the excavations are backdrop and inspiration, but really not part of the story.
- When are the reenactor free days? The focus for the Castell Henllys team is clearly school visits and evidently they need people dressed up to explain the Iron Age. Unfortunately, when I visited over a decade ago, I couldn’t get rid of the reenactor who wanted to challenge me to some kind of duel and interrupted my introduction to the site to a group of first-year students. I felt no option but to tell him to ‘go away’ and let me talk about archaeology. This time around I attempted to talk to my own kids about the archaeology and point out things and was told I was ‘welcome to stay near the back’ when the school kids were due to arrive in one roundhouse and then later to ‘move away’ from the gate area where the reenactors wanted to perform for the school kids. I politely acquiesced but, in a near-empty site, I felt less than welcome and my kids were clearly not targeted for any of this role play.
In summary, a distinctive and visit-worthy heritage experience, but bereft of archaeology and, to be honest, I’d rather there was an option to visit without the reenactors being there.