Military veteran rebuilds his life, with a castle on a mountain

Sirhowy Valley, Wales — Mikey Allen didn't plan to build a castle. He just needed somewhere to be alone, to find some peace. But he also needed something to occupy his time and drown out his thoughts. Hauling stones and logs up a remote mountainside in Wales was physically punishing. It left him with little time for reflection, and it gave him purpose.

"The goal has created some form of hope, has kept me alive to a certain degree," Allen told CBS News.

A combination of skill and luck kept him alive when he served as a lance corporal with the British Army in Afghanistan more than a decade ago. He was the point-man for his unit, which was tasked with uncovering roadside bombs. Death and injury were common during his seven-month tour.

British Army Veteran Mikey Allen works on his castle in the Welsh mountains. / Credit: CBS News

On one patrol in Helmand Province, he saw an Afghan National Police officer step on a mine laid by Taliban militants.

"There was a big explosion. Me and my colleague went sideways skidding across the floor. The best way I can describe it is it looked like his legs had been stuck together with superglue. Just, all different directions. His torso was twisted sideways."

Allen and his fellow soldier scrambled back to their feet and, amid the smoke and confusion, gave the badly wounded man emergency first aid.

"We called in a helicopter and took him back to Camp Bastion, but he died on the way back to camp," he said.

His brush with death made him question everything, even reality.

"You're kind of questioning, is this a second life? Is there something we don't know? It makes no sense."

Back at home in Wales, Allen suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"You come back and you feel a different person," he said. "Friends and family say you're not the same. It's like you've lost your soul."

Suffering from a debilitating back injury, he left the army and turned to drugs and alcohol. His marriage broke down, and then one day, so did he.

"I just kept eating painkillers, and eating them and eating them. And I hoped not to wake up."

He did wake up, but life just got harder, so he retreated from society, finding solitude on the side of Mynyddislwyn Mountain, nestled in Wales' Sirhowy Valley.

"I was homeless, I didn't have any food, no money, no telephone," Allen said.

He built a wooden cabin in the forest on the mountainside, "away from everybody."

British Army veteran Mikey Allen works with raw stone from an abandoned quarry in the mountains of Wales, to continue work on his castle.  / Credit: CBS News

"There were some local people that were really, really helpful. They'd give me a cooked dinner. Sometimes a simple cup of tea and chocolate biscuit made all the difference between not giving up and giving up."

But then disaster struck. He came home one day to find the cabin that had taken him months to construct gone.

"It had been completely torn down by the authorities," Allen said. "They were cutting the trees down in a year and they deemed it a fire hazard. So, my belongings — all my tools, my clothes, sleeping bag — was all gone."

A nearby farming family learned of Allen's plight and let him live for free in an old caravan on one of their fields. They also said Allen, 42, could use their land for his next project. It was that act of kindness that gave him the chance to truly start over.

British Army veteran Mikey Allen works on his castle in the Welsh mountains. / Credit: CBS News

For the next three years, Allen pushed his body to its limits: Carrying up to 130 pounds of stone at a time, all dug out of an abandoned quarry, on his back; chopping and carrying logs from the nearby forest, he began to construct a fortress. In doing so, he rebuilt his life.

It was a grueling task.

"The main part is collecting all the stone," said Allen. "For every one hour building, you've got five, six hours collecting stone in the first place."

Barely stopping to rest, he felt the intense labor bring an inner sense of calm. He also found love again.

Rachel Whiting met Mikey three years ago, when the castle was just a rough outline of a promise cut into the dirt.

"Mike and I felt that we'd known each other forever the day we met," Whiting told CBS News. "It was like meeting a best friend that I hadn't seen in years. That's how I felt when I met him. We've helped each other so much, in many ways."

British Army veteran Mikey Allen with Rachel Whiting. / Credit: CBS News

Whiting found that Allen's trauma made it easier for her to deal with her own troubles. On a February evening in 2011, she was told that her husband, who was also in the military, had committed suicide.

"For me, that night, it was complete and utter hell," she recalled. "It's a pain that will never go. You learn to manage it, but it never goes. This is what suicide leaves behind."

She credits the castle with lifting her mood during some dark moments, and cementing her relationship with Allen.

"Even when I feel like I don't want to do much and I'm having one of those days, he'll say: 'Are you sure you don't want to chop a tree down with me? Just try one stone, come on!' Oh, alright!"

As the castle has grown, so has the community around it. Around 100 people visit now ever week. Residents from the area, other troubled veterans, and just strangers inspired by Allen's story all trek up the mountain to sit and de-stress and take in the views of the beautiful valley stretching out below them.

Mikey Allen's castle is seen on a mountainside in Sirhowy Valley, Wales. / Credit: CBS News

Allen said his happiest day at the castle was during the first, long COVID-19 lockdown of 2020.

"I came across the top of the mountain and there's 30, 40 people, all big, happy smiling faces. Knowing how people were struggling during that lockdown and then to see so many happy faces, and waving to different families — that was a really special day."

Through the charity he's founded, Endex, Allen has made many more people smile. The castle has hosted yoga, meditation and fitness classes, along with mental health courses and skills training — including dry stone walling, the ancient technique Allen used to build his castle. Families who have children with special needs have also found support and guidance on the mountainside. And it's all free of charge.

Allen said more than 5,000 people have visited the castle, "from everywhere... America and Canada, Norway, Fiji."

He plans to finish the third and final floor in the coming months: More space, for more healing.

CBS News correspondent Roxana Saberi contributed to this report.

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