Castles of Wales: My Secret Vice

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.

Castles Visited

  • 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

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Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “Castles of Wales: My Secret Vice

  1. Thanks for that ! I wish my ‘hobby’ had a host of places that were as easily gotten too. There are some … though not nearly as ancient.
    Ed

    • lol come to wales. its either castles or hillsides. city-types love that stuff. to be honest its taken me to 24yrs old to appreciate the area i’ve grown up in. truly spectacular

  2. Without traveling too far I can visit some old railroad lines that have stone arch bridges that were constructed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The best part is that they were built just like the Romans built their bridges .. fitted stone with no mortar. Glad you are letting some of us in on your ‘secret vice’ !!
    Ed

    • Where do you live?

      • Southern New Hampshire, USA.
        The bridges I referred to are in Massachusetts and there are some old stone bridges in New Hampshire, though, not on the same scale as far as size and complexity goes.

  3. Time Team were at our local Kenfig Castle a couple of weeks ago. Dont think they dug the castle itself but dug parts of the medieval town buried under the sand. I’ve been wanting them to dig there for twenty years and missed them when they did.

    Kenfig is the largest medieval town in UK apart from Skipsea in Yorks though the remains of the castle are small – not much more than a keep. Buried under the sand around 1480’s. The town is accessible just inches below the surface in places. I joined local Hysterical soc. back in the nineties and we were cheeky enough to get a dig together. I was the most experienced digger, having taken part in one other dig previously, (King Arthur on mountain above Bridgend).
    Some Roman material also at Kenfig . I found a piece made in Lezoux, France A.D 70 – the potter was Attepomar 2.

    Check this for vid-blogs http://www.kenfig.org.uk/history/timeteam

    Not enough archaeology done in Wales. Our Uni’s always sending teams to dig anywhere but Wales. And no body digs the dark-age sites when we were last independent and a centre of learning at various monasteries. That is why King Alfred sent for Bishop Asser they were importing out teachers way back then.

  4. interesting, didnt know any of that. although the bridgend based castles (newcastle, ogmore etc) are next on my hitlist, the only ones i havent done in south wales now along with chepstow and some monmouth-side ones.

  5. Carreg Cennen and Dinefwr – two of my favourite places on my travels. But then, my all time favourite is the unspectacular, yet mellow, silent and brooding Skenfrith – a delight on a summer’s evening. Not forgetting the earthworks (and astonishing church) at Kilpeck, just over the border. Once, when resting there as the sun was going down, a middle aged couple walked up. “It doesn’t get much better than this”, I said. “It does if you live in Wales”, came the lyrical reply… Says it all really.

    • great comment and a timely reminder i need to add Skenfrith to my list. havent been there yet. maybe soon. Carreg Cennen and Dinefwr i might be biased towards as they’re my local castles but I truly love them. Last week I had a surprise at how big and fun Llawhaden Castle was considering i had a) never heard of it in years of research and b) how i came across it by accident thinking the the castle sign was for the absolutly ridiculouly misleading Picton “Castle”. worth a visit when down West

  6. Extremely helpful article, plesae write more.

  7. I know much of Castell Coch is a folly but what of the very lowest sections. How original are they and do they qualify it as a proper castle?

    Manorbier is a favourite of mine and Pennard. Not so much because of the castles themselves but because of the fun had whilst visiting them.

    • Manorbier is an incredible castle, i’m not a big fan of summer or sweltering heat but if you manage to be one of the only people there on a bright summer’s day with long views out to sea…not many better places to be in my opinion

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