LIVING, as I do, in the seaside town of Penarth, there can be little excuse for my lack of time spent visiting famous sites and landmarks within easy travelling distance in the south Wales area.
Ewegottalove.Wales means I no longer have that excuse.
I have visited Cardiff Castle on numerous occasions, Castell Coch, Tintern Abbey (as a child), even Laugharne, the spiritual home of poet Dylan Thomas; more of those in later blogs.
Somewhere I hadn’t visited until recently, however, was Caerphilly Castle. That has now been put to rights – and I’m glad I made the effort.
Let’s face it, a 33-minute train ride and a short stroll through Caerphilly town centre is hardly gruelling and made me wonder why I had not made this undemanding pilgrimage before.
A gloomy, overcast day actually seemed to lend character to the medieval fortification slap bang in the centre of Caerphilly town.
The castle itself was constructed by Gilbert de Clare in the 13th Century as part of his campaign to conquer Glamorgan, and saw extensive fighting between Gilbert, his descendants, and the native Welsh rulers.
Surrounded by extensive artificial lakes – considered by historian Allen Brown to be “the most elaborate water defences in all Britain” – it occupies around 30 acres and is the second largest castle in Britain (Windsor is the largest). It is famous for having introduced concentric castle defences to Britain and for its large gatehouses.
The first thing to catch the eye, however, is the South East Tower which apparently leans at a greater angle than the slightly more famous Leaning Tower of Pisa!
Caerphilly Castle, so the history books say, was ‘slighted’ by Cromwell’s forces in 1648, leading to our ‘Welsh Tower of Pisa’ splitting in two. Now the structure that remains leans three metres off true, about 10 degrees off the vertical – thus the oddly impressive sculpture of the fourth Marquess of Bute at the base, seemingly using all his strength to prevent the tower from falling.
This formidable stone fortress, surrounded by two huge lakes, was built at breakneck speed 700 years ago – largely between 1268 and 1271 – which modern-day building methods would surely be hard-pressed to improve upon.
Yet only when you have crossed the first moat to the outer gatehouse does the sheer scale of this castle within a castle become apparent.
As you climb one of the towers of the main gatehouse, the castle spreads out below – spanning four more gatehouses, three mighty towers, two rings of curtain wall, and one impressive Great Hall.
In his writings on British castles, Dr Edd Morris describes Caerphilly Castle as “unequalled within Western Europe. It was an aggressive, testosterone-fuelled project of incredible ambition”.
But I will leave the tales of Caerphilly Castle’s history to others far better qualified, suffice to say that it was an afternoon well spent exploring this ancient structure. Cadw, the Welsh heritage body, have installed some atmospheric audio-visual exhibits which help to bring the castle alive.
And my visit happily coincided with the arrival of a family of dragons, their atmospheric, smoke-filled lair unveiled as part of a planned £570,000 investment programme by Cadw to mark the castle’s 750th anniversary.
In addition, Gilbert’s Maze invites daring knights to conquer the Castle’s unique defensive system by navigating hidden passageways and challenging obstacles.
The Caerphilly Visitor Centre is close at hand to ensure that you get the very most from your visit to the area. The centre also houses an impressive gift shop showcasing locally made quality crafts and famous Caerphilly cheeses are available to purchase in the Castle Coffee Lounge overlooking the castle.
Many visitors to the refurbished Caerphilly town centre are also surprised to see a statue of the legendary comedian Tommy Cooper, who was born in the town. Wearing his traditional fez, Tommy is situated just across the road from the castle, a fitting tribute to the great man.