The Wales Chronicles: The Stones of Carreg Cennen

Wales: It’s about the size of New Jersey, is kinda out of the way, and everybody wanted it.

Driving through the interior hinterlands of Wales, it seems I really missed the party: Castles rise from nearly every mountain top and defensive vantage point. And, see, the thing about a medieval-age castle is that you don’t build one unless you really, really need one. They took time, planning, manpower, staff, resources. They were an long-term investment. And for a territory so removed from the usual nexuses of European power in the Dark Ages, its amazing that Wales has more castles than the rest of Europe combined. The conquest/defense of this Celtic nugget must have been a vicious, bloody, protracted, and personal war fought valley by valley, ridge by ridge.

The most action the swales and sheepfields see today are two rams butting heads. Kind of a let-down.

Fortress on a Hill

Carreg Cennen has all the hallmarks. Commanding position? Check. Illustrious history going back to the Iron Age? Check-check. Ghost? Checkity-check-check (never did find him, though. Rats). Built on a small spine of rock overlooking a broad swath of the Black Mountains near the village of Llandeilo, the castle we see today is only the most “recent” addition, going back to the reign of Edward I (1272 – 1307), but such is the strategic placement and easy defensibility that anybody in this neck of the woods used it.

Carreg Cennen in silhouette.

I got there in some of the most unusual weather conditions Wales had ever seen: clear skies. Great for farmers, but so much for the oh-so-photogenic creepy atmosphere that makes ruins all the more “ruiny.” Wouldn’t you know that for the week I was in Wales, Carreg Cennen Day was the one 24-hour period of zippo precipitation? I mean, not even passing fog bank.

Carreg Cennen and the surrounding massifs of the Black Mountains.

Anyhoo, coming up to the castle is just as tough today as it just have been for a sieging army–the only way up is practically vertical, and it is clear Carreg Cennen was an installation and not a showpiece. No glam here; cisterns and ovens are right beyond the gatehouse in the ward, and the narrow geography at the summit makes the whole layout…”cozy.” This was a fortress. It was practical. It was for war.

The inner ward of Carreg Cennen. It’s a tight fit.

But you still can’t help but feel the grandeur; Carreg Cennen may have been made to be efficient, but also was it to be damn imposing. It sits lords over the landscape unassailable, the very image of the castle on a hill. You can taste the archetype.

Dungeons and Dragons 

The best time to get to Carreg Cennen, in bad weather or good, is in the morning. It may be out of the way, but the castle is enough of a draw to bring in a steady flow of looks-loos perfect for spoiling a good Instagram moment. But if in case tourists, just go underground. This castle has layers.

For example: Take a page out of Celtic mythology and you come across any number of otherworldly denizens that hole up in fantastical realms underground. Carreg Cennan isn’t quiet that fabulous, but it does have a mysterious bend to it thanks to an extensive, and in some parts unexplored, cave system. What exactly the caves were used for is up to some debate; no one has been able to say for sure. But take a completely innocuous turn and you will find your in a windowed corridor filled with sunbeams and then…darkness.

Carreg Cennen: Into Darkness

Forget electric lighting; if you don’t have a flashlight, you are back in the Iron Age. And perhaps with some not-quite-mortal company; legend has it that if you leave a pin in cave, the ghost/spirit/whatever grants you a wish. No pin? Well, let’s just say you won’t want to tarry in utter lighlessness for long.

Lordly Vision

But since I had nothing but broad daylight up topside, why not take advantage of the view? Wales, with its ancient hills and rolling green grid of hedgerows and sheep fields, is nothing if not camera-ready for all you panoramic landscape-lovers.

Looking into the dawn from Carreg Cennen. The white speckles are sheep. 

And once you get up to as high as a ruined citadel will allow, you can see just how well-placed Carreg Cennen is. There is absolutely no way you could sneak up on this thing. In its day, the hedgerows may have been there, but the trees or anything taller than a man’s waist would have been cut down, affording no hiding place–at all–for miles around. Unless you marched in the dead of night, and a moonless one at that, you and your army was going to be seen and alerts sounded well before you got anywhere near the castle.

Dark Age strategists are probably throwing sparks in their graves, but all that hard work has today resulted one of the best go-tos in south Wales for prosaic “sweeping vista photography”:

OK, now Wales is just showing off…

So maybe the good weather wasn’t such a bad thing. I can admit when I am wrong. Particularly when I got all my shots up onto a wide-screen computer with hi-res. I think these were some of the best shots I took in Wales.

This is about as big as the windows got in what was a grim military outpost.

I didn’t have very long at Cerreg Cennen (the town of Laugharne awaited), but the castle is easily a place where you can wile away an afternoon. Still, I was really jonesin’ for bad weather; Wales just looks better wet. I played with Instagram’s filters on one of the parting shots to mimic dusk; the halo of mist created a surreal effect:

One of those moments where you don’t know what a shot will look like until you experiment.

Not exactly what the castle would look like in stormgloom (not complaining), but you get the idea. And it will have to do until I manage to get back. And I am soooo going to get back…














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