Author Niall Griffiths explores Wolfscastle, and the local Landsker…

TreffgarneRocks-150x150Cas-blaidd, or Castle of the Wolf; such a ringing and evocative name. The origins of it are immaterial, really – mysteries explained cease to be mysteries. Better to immerse yourself in the magic of Pembrokeshire than seek explication. You don’t bring your desk with you, when you come to this place.

The castle is of the motte-and-bailey type, a bracken-captured hump standing some six metres high. The building of the nearby A40 in the 1920s destroyed some sections of the bailey but the antiquity of the place is unquestionable, and palpable; potsherds found in the paler soil of the site indicate an earlier Iron Age structure, built on to strengthen the Landsker line, a string of fortifications erected by the Anglo-Normans to protect their south Pembrokeshire colony from the native Welsh. 

The soil here is rich with plundered blood. Owain Glyn Dwr sacked the area during his uprising and his bones are rumoured to be interred in Hill Field next to Wolfscastle Country Hotel, itself a part of an intricate and intriguing back-story, built on a site occupied for millenia, with walls from an ancient cottage still visible its superstructure. It was also once an inn, the Sealyham Arms, before William Tucker Edwardes – whose family had a finger in many a Pembrokeshire pastie – converted it into Allt-yr-Afon for his brother Thomas, injured in the siege of Badajoz. It passed through many local landowning hands before becoming a hotel in 1976.

And its story continues. It’s a Welsh Rarebit attraction now, and recently refurbished. Rooms with big beds and baths and window seats and slanting beams of light and bags of face-implodingly, tooth-looseningly sweet fudge (as fudge should be) on the coffee-table. And, of course, Pembrokeshire singing to you beyond the windows. We changed into boots and old jeans and walked out into the green and hanging drizzle.

Dylan Thomas called these hills ‘loud’, and he was spot-on, as he was about many things; they talk and sing and recount histories and legends, fill your ears with stories of wars and wolves and druidic goings-on, bloodbath battles, the echoing clang of steel on steel. High mewls of kites and buzzards and the chortle of spring and brook. We climbed up to the oneiric geoglyphs of Treffgarne Rocks, the county flat and vast and open around this bizarre tall cluster of towering rocks and crags.

Pareidolia is the human propensity to perceive recognisable forms in random shapes; maybe, it is mooted, a memory of when we needed to discern the hungry faces of bears and sabre-tooths in the shadows beyond the fire’s thrown light. That innate talent proves itself here; the Treffgarne Rocks change, depending on angle and quality of light, and reading them is a thrilling and absorbing activity; now Oddjob, now a snarling cat, now a pterodactyl, now a leaping salmon. Local nicknames for these formations include ‘the lion’ and ‘the teddy bear’ but they’re kaleidoscopic, and given to instant alteration.

There’s a hillfort here, too, looming over the gorge far below in the thalweg of which the Western Cleddau foams and breaknecks between tall and thickly-ranked trees. In this valley can be found Brunel’s abortive 19th century attempt to bring a railway to the area. Once there were stations at Wolfscastle Halt, Welsh Hook, Mathry Road. Noisy places still, but with sounds other than the grinding of engines and the hisses of steam.

Ogham stones, mills, fountains, disused quarries. Remote chapels reachable only by foot and set in circular enclosures and wetly a-crumble due to the slow emissions from the area’s thousand holy wells. The Garn Turne capstone in the boggy field, damp sheep picking morosely for struggling green morsels between the scutellant rocks; collapsed long ago, this stone, due to the enormous weight of it. Lying aslant and undeclared in the field, massive, a wedge of beckoning shadow beneath it; colossal, huge, of terrific mass. At each turn, Sir Benfro boggles.

Then back to the hotel for a nap and a hot bath and lots, lots of food and wine, served by warm and knowledgeable and attentive – but never, not once, obsequious – staff. Scallops, black pudding and apple puree; pigeon breast. Hake tagine and duck. Everything locally sourced. Champagne sorbet and Welsh cheeses. Burgundy and Sancerre and port. Brandy in the bar. And perfect kedgeree at the other side of a deep and renewing sleep, lullaby’d by the singing hills.

It’s wonderful how Pembrokeshire, and especially the northern Landsker part of it, given its deep background of warfare and bloody strife, can be so inducive to calm and peace. It’s not cosy, or comfortable, or safe, and if that’s what you’re after, go elsewhere. Yet it has the stillness and pacificity that I associate in memory with a bedtime story; moving and magical and re-assuring, possessed of a power to renovate and refresh.

Bio: Niall Griffiths is perhaps best known for his novels Grits and Sheepshagger, and his 2003 publication, Stump – which won the Wales Book of the Year award. His seventh novel – A Great Big Shining Star – was released in 2013. And don’t miss the film Kelly + Victor, which is based on Niall’s book of the same name.

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