So I have a random hobby; A hobby that seems utterly left-field considering the macho, sports-driven and party-loving entourage I am often found relaxing with; A hobby that tends to be more popular amongst middle aged tourists from afar with huge paparazzi-like cameras than a local 20-something utilising the full benefits of a small trendy mobile to capture images. The hobby is random, this fact is inescapable.
In pursuit of my hobby the looks I get from dishevelled and sweaty couples struggling with the castle’s demands as I push past them are sometimes bewildering. Despite the fact I’ve barely come 20 miles and they’ve sometimes travelled thousands, I tend to be the person totally out of place best displayed by my lack of cliched tourist baseball cap, packed lunch and various guide books. Yes indeed, Castles appear to be the sole domain of geeks, pensioners and amazed foreigners lost on the historic trail from London.
Curiously I don’t remember having a particular fixation on castles as a child. You do sometimes see children running around dressed up as Knights, with toy swords defending their imaginary kingdoms, but I can’t say that I ever did. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and then Football were the dominating creative outlets throughout my childhood, both of which just reinforces the randomness of this adult obsession of mine. This was evident not many weeks ago on a night out where I grew excited at some ancient ruins in a city centre, captivated by the way this behemoth of a previous time was now absorbed by the modern buildings around it. It did strike me that this is a castle I had previously spent almost two decades aware of, yet totally ignored. Now I can just stop amongst the hectic throng of the inner city crowds and just concentrate fixatedly on the one-time impressive structure. This is no longer an isolated incident, it happens regularly. Every reasonable journey I now take involves Google maps and Wikipedia, pinpointing whether exactly there is a castle worth visiting in the vicinity. If there is one thing working in my favour it is that every night I lay my head to rest in a nation acclaimed as the ‘land of castles’. Wales is readily acknowledged as having more castles per square mile than anywhere else in Europe, a permanent memorial to its turbulent and storied past. The majority of castles that now stand in ruins along the rugged and mountainous terrain of Wales are an acknowledgment of its oppression by its larger neighbour in England, most of them being English creations in the bloody and eventually succesful attempt to bring the Welsh people under their control. Symbols of power, the looming structures were built in many historically strategic points and were the bastions of strength that represented the English Crown in an unruly and hostile area.
Having become initially entranced with this turbulent history of our fascinating nation, researching and enjoying tales of Welsh rebellions and Princes it was natural that the sites of so many of these stories would come to the forefront of this obsession. With a burgeoning feeling of pride in the country, the logical step was to take advantage of the plethora of local history sites during my prolonged absence from work. Everyone in the region where I live is aware of Carreg Cennen Castle but this amazing ancient structure remains almost unloved and lonely within its community, especially amongst the ignorant adolescents. This generation fails to take interest in the architectural wonder that sits almost perilously on a crag cliff high above the fields and hills of rural Carmarthenshire. Sitting on remains on the edge of the deep and dramatic cliff face is a moment of immense serenity, the kind people in the cities pay outlandish fees to receive from their masseuse. Apart from the gale of the wind and the occasional sound of local wildlife, the quiet is intact. If wildlife-inclined, there is also a vast array of various animals that can be sighted, from the high soaring Kite’s or the wild Rabbits that loiter perilously close to the edge of the abyss. Even the breathless walk up to the Castle brings the inevitable contact with rural Welsh sheep, one having to almost chase back the dozens of fluffy ewe’s that block your access to the rubble. The base of the outer walls still stands, entrenched into the limstone precipice onto which it was constructed, and although barely standing a few feet high in many places it does allow one to mentally picture where the castle actually began and ended. Whilst the castle itself (view notwithstanding) is very much the typical norm, one popular part of Carreg Cennen is the dungeon, a sloping descent into darkness made notable for the fact that as one descends into the cliff the small lookholes in the cliff-face again allow magnificent and as yet unrivalled views across the Brecon Beacons. Naturally built with defence and not scenery in mind, the castle stood up to a siege from Owain Glyndwr and his rebellious forces in July 1403, extolling the virtues of building such a structure high above any risk from attack. With the sounds of bowmen, cavalry charges and dying screams long gone, if there is a place to get away from the troubles of the world, to relax with ones thoughts, then on top of a cliff looking out over the Brecon Beacons is up there with the very best National Geographic can offer.
With my local castle undoubtedly being my favourite, there are numerous others I have come across on my travels that deserve some column space. Barely a matter of miles across the Carmarthenshire landscape also lies another castle which whilst not having the scenery of Carreg Cennen does possess a standing of greater historic importance to the region. Dinefwr Castle is situated in the grounds of the National Trust-run Dinefwr park which lies on the edge of Llandeilo town centre and rises above the Towy valley. Noted as the seat of the Principality of Dehubarth, Dinefwr Castle was basically the Medieval equivalent of Buckingham Palace for the Kingdom in which it was situated. Amongst those giants of Welsh history whom came into possession of the esteemed Dinefwr Castle included Hywel Dda, Rhodri the Great, Rhys ap Gryffudd as well as both Llewelyn the Great and Llewelyn the Last. Similar to its sister castle at Carreg Cennen, Dinefwr was yet another castle that was unsuccessfully beseiged by Owain Glyndwr during his attempt to free English rule from Wales. The castle itself is reached by yet another tiring walk to the top although a pleasant one and the castle itself is still in decent shape, the main attraction being the spiral staircase to the top of the keep that allows extensive views of the valley floor that is spread out below the castle. Whilst less to see and do than at Carreg Cennen, Dinefwr is a melancholy place where Kings and Princes used to roam and is therefore worth a visit any time.
North-East Wales can be considered the ‘goldmine’ of Welsh castles, the magnificently massive Conwy Castle and Caernarfon Castle considered national treasures and two infamous tourist destinations. In their shadow somewhat is Harlech Castle, forever immortalised in the military march “Men of Harlech”. Similar to Carreg Cennen, Harlech is also based atop a gigantic cliff albeit a cliff that is not only at the foot of Snowdonia but on the edge of the Irish sea, a strategic position that has played a vital part in the castle’s history. As soon as you step into the town of Harlech the castle dominates the skyline, rising unimaginably high above the street in a way that must have been terrifying for a mediavel people unaccustomed to skyscrapers and their ilk. Build by Edward I as part of his conquest of Wales, the castle was one that was actually captured by Owain Glyndwr who held it between 1404 and 1409. Later still, during the War of the Roses between the vying Royal Houses of Lancaster and York the castle came under siege for Seven Years, the longest such siege in British histor and which thus formed the inspirational basis for the ‘Men of Harlech’ song that has remained in the consciousness of the Welsh to the present day. Perhaps the greatest attribute that Harlech Castle posseses is the impressive and complete gatehouse that greets the visitor, an hulking mass of brick that allows yourself to be transported back to a bygone era as you climb the steps into the castle. A mythological castle in the true heart of Wales.
Travelling further across the green and sloping lands of this small nation, signs for castles are a regular occurrence. Despite the many dozens to choose from and regardless of when they were built, each structure offers a unique and individual history, adding to the poignancy as you explore the remains of what used to be living quarters, prisons and kitchens to whole generations of families. One of the redeeming features for many visitors is the scenes you usually find in Hollywood epics – the castle siege. Every castle has its war history, particularly during the decade of Welsh rebellion at the cusp of the 15th century, led by the aforementioned national patriot Owain Glyndwr. During this period castles were lost and recaptured, and thousands were killed in the process. Indeed these castles are long lost graveyards to the fallen men given the unenviable teak of breeching the mammoth and imposing stone walls in the face of fierce attack. Aside from the symbolism of what these castles stand for, the brutal subjection of the peasants to a higher ruling class, they also offer the chance for childish adventure, a playground of epic proportions for child and adult alike. From discovering the ancient weapons of Caerphilly to climbing the skyscraper-like towers in Harlech, there is nothing like discovering passageways and views for the first time. Yes, a random hobby. But one I truly love.
- Caerphilly Castle
- Cardiff Castle
- St Fagan’s Castle
- Carreg Cennen Castle
- Carmarthen Castle
- Dinefwr Castle
- Dryslwyn Castle
- Kidwelly Castle
- Laugharne Castle
- Llandovery Castle
- Llansteffan Castle
- Harlech Castle
- Raglan Castle
- Carew Castle
- Haverfordwest Castle
- Pembroke Castle
- Picton Castle
- Tenby Castle
- Brecon Castle
- Oxwich Castle
- Weobley Castle
- Oystermouth Castle
- Pennard Castle
- Swansea Castle
- Manorbier Castle
- Llawhaden Castle
- Narbeth Castle
- Lamphey Palace
- Skenfrith Castle
- Ludlow Castle
- Chepstow Castle
Unless you’ve experienced the same level of contentment you’ll have to trust me when I say this, but there is no better feeling than being halfway through a large well-done Steak in a rural, warm premises on a midweek afternoon.
That intense period where your still hungry and enjoying the succulent taste of a still-warm slab of meat yet not too full that your stomach is groaning for respite is what makes many miles of journeying and the invariably large bill worth it.
Living in Wales, I tend to be lucky in that I reside in a small nation resplendent with teeming hills of cattle and sheep, local well-bred produce very much the chosen method for providing delightful, full-flavoured and fresh feasts.
During a whimsical sabbatical from the pressures of work last summer I had plenty of free time to use up. Free time I used constructively. Free time in which I frequented the farthest confines of Wales in search of a welcoming sign, an open door, a busy car park and the intoxicating and suffocating smell of seasoned steaks having the hell grilled into it. A perfect respite during those restless months.
In my continuously hungry eyes it’s very hard to ruin a good steak dinner, yet that doesn’t stop me from really appreciating those meals that stand truly above the rest, be it in presentation, quality or quantity.
One such entity is the Ynyscedwyn Arms on the edge of Ystradgynlais in the winding Swansea valley. A rejuvenated restaurant with a lively bar visited by local characters, the ‘Ced’ serves fantastically fresh produce. Their steaks are thick and succulent, the mushrooms in garlic sauce are top quality and even the chips, traditionally the dish that let’s down many a meal and often neglected by chefs, are anything but remnants from the back of an over-burdened freezer.
Added to this is the surroundings, tightly hugging the side of the Brecon Beacons. I went just before christmas and although not one to be swept up in yuletide festivities, tucking into a sizzling cut of beef infront of a similarly sizzling fireplace left me feeling relaxed and contented beyond belief. I’m sure the soft christmas crooning of past musical icons also helped. A phoenix rising from the ashes of condemned restaurant/pub combinations, the ‘Ced’ is a place that should, nay needs, to be visited.
A second place that deserves equal mention is the wooden confines that is the Old Black Lion, located just down the road from the narrow streets that compromise Hay-on-Wye, that respectable home of the curiously famous book festival. How a small, middle of nowhere yet admittedly scenic town acquired such status is beyond me, but whilst books may be its forte the Old Black Lion certainly commands respect for its meal. Although not the most aesthetically pleasing meal (no fancy gadgets, plates or cutlery here), the steak certainly passed the quality test and most pleasing as it was unexpected it certainly passed the quantity test.
Big steak, an epic and unnaturally deep bowl of chips and thick chunky mushrooms, all were served on a simple handcrafted wooden table and chairs in a simple oak bar, complete with the kind of regular bitter drinkers whom almost appear wooden themselves. Simple, homely, tasty. Nothing more required.
There are plenty of other places that deserve a mention such as the Golden Lion in coastal Newport, Pembs and the delightful Fwrrwm Ishta that nestles on the side of the important Caerphilly-Cardiff road in Machen, however to list them would result in me forever writing, never eating. And with establishments like those I’ve listed within easy reach, that’s something my stomach and I can’t allow to happen!