Whereas last year when we were in the UK our trip was notable for the number of cathedrals we visited, our first trip to Wales was marked by castles. The list includes Chepstow, Raglan, Coch, Caerphilly and Cardif castles. This is not going to be a history lesson about who built which and when, rather it will be my impressionistic reactions to these monuments to human ambition, folly and desire.
In some ways it was a shame that we visited Chepstow Castle first as I found it quite overwhelming in scale and was by far and away most impressed by its ability to instill a sense of awe at its builders. Its location on a rock face on the bend of the River Wye heightened the sense of power it must have projected in its heyday.
Perhaps it was because it was an overcast day that it felt so foreboding. Looking at my pictures now I am no longer as haunting as it seemed at the time. My memory of the experience is somehow different from the feeling evoked by the pictures when viewed in retrospect.
Nevertheless, the fact that it dates from immediately after the Norman invasion and that it was built to subdue the Welsh Marches it still feels like a castle built for real defence. Unlike Raglan as we shall see below.
We had been advised by our Kensington Chapel neighbours that Raglan was a well-preserved castle and sure enough it is still comparatively complete. It sits overlooking the village of Raglan with commanding views of the countryside all around and is really a fortress-palace compared to Chepstow. It wasn’t begun until at least 200 hundred years after the mighty Chepstow and only saw action briefly in the Civil War when it was besieged and taken by the Parliament forces. Hooray!
Although it has a castle-within-a-castle surrounded by its own moat much of the ruins evidence the fact that it was for much of its history a family home with luxurious apartments, banqueting halls, library and wine cellars. It definitely had a distinctly domestic feel compared to Chepstow.
As you can tell it was a beautiful sunny day when we visited Raglan. In contrast Caerphilly was dull, overcast and even drizzling at times. This definitely heightened the sense of grim foreboding emanating from this massive castle. Both this and Chepstow were quite incongruously surrounded by the streets and buildings of modern day towns although the juxtaposition was more stark at Caerphilly with shops and houses running along both the front and side walls.
Caerphilly was one of the first concentric castles to be built in Britain and has a double moat system fed from a local stream. Although large modern sluice gates now control the outflow this was managed in the original by Norman engineers. In more recent times the moats were drained and used for various events and activities. In 1957 the moats were refilled and remain so to this day.
This tower is currently leaning at 10 degrees and the remains of the side which broke off are still at the base of the tower. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere near when that lot came down. The pieces are massive.
Although, like Chepstow, built as a working defensive fortress it has many rooms which one can still explore today. There are some splendid halls which provide a sense of the scale.
Finally a couple of views illustrating the extensiveness of the moats. The outer moat is almost like a small lake.
There were two more castles on our list but I will leave them to the next post as they are really in an altogether different category. They were Castell Coch and Cardiff Castle. Why they belong together will become apparent in the following post. As a little preview here is a view of the approach to Castell Coch: