Castelophiles only

Part of Cardiff Castle, its facade a mix of medieval, Georgian and Victorian Gothic Revival

Gerald Morgan Castles in Wales: A Handbook
Y Lolfa 2008

It’s often claimed that, per square mile, Wales has the largest number of castles in the world.¹ Whether it’s the Welsh bigging themselves up or one of those memes that’s just accepted, it’s certainly true that the country has over 600 examples. As Wales is over 8000 square miles — nearly 20,800 square kilometres — in area,² this means there is a castle for every 13 sq miles (35 sq km) of land. Nowadays that works out at around one castle for every 5000 head of population, whereas in the Middle Ages, when the inhabitants of Wales may have fluctuated between 150K and 300K, each castle was on average meant to overawe between 250 and 500 Welshmen and -women. That’s some comment on the fears of the mostly Norman and Plantagent overlords who built them and on the rightfully bolshie attitudes of the native peoples.

When we imagine castles it’s odds-on we picture something like Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, partly modelled on the 19th-century castle at Neuschwanstein, or perhaps one of the French chateaux of the Loire. The fact is that castles come in all shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of function. Gerald Morgan makes this point very clearly in his introduction to this Welsh castle handbook: while the simplest definition could be ‘a medieval European fortified stronghold’ (thus excluding prehistoric earthworks, Roman camps and Victorian follies and fancies, for example) it can include everything from ringworks and motte-and-bailey structures to fortified manor houses and walled palaces, as well as the great military showpieces that typify the Welsh castle in the popular mind.

Detail of Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria: Oliver-Bonjoch (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Four hundred of these sites are listed in an appendix, and eighty or so described in varying detail in the main text. A copious number of monochrome photos are included though no plans, as if to whet the appetite for the potential visitor and encourage them to explore for themselves with the aid of local guidebooks. It becomes clear that every site has an individual story to tell (sadly the short descriptions can only hint at these), of local rivalries and shifting allegiances, Welsh princes and Marcher lords, bloody conflict or genteel inactivity and decay.

At a rough count I’ve visited (or at least viewed from a reasonable proximity) about forty of these castles, a few so slight as to escape any mention here. Some are magnificent edifices dominating their situation, such as Caernarfon, Conwy, Pembroke, Caerphilly, Chepstow or Harlech; some are romantic ruins, like Llandovery, Aberystwyth, Dinefwr, Cilgerran (painted by Turner) or Crickhowell; others barely survive beneath later urban development, like Hay-on-Wye, Cardigan, Haverfordwest. A few (witness Carew, Tretower and Raglan) were developed as mansions at the tail end of the medieval period only to fall into eventual redundancy, yet others have been so transmogrified in later centuries — structures such as Castell Coch, the Pembrokeshire castles Dale, Picton and Newport — that it is hard to see where what is genuinely medieval has survived. And let’s not forget Cardiff Castle which has morphed from Roman fort to medieval bastion, then Victorian neo-Gothic mansion and wartime bomb shelter to one of the city’s top five visitor attractions.

As well as the gazetteer the more than 250 pages of this handbook succinctly list and organise these sites under the old county headings, to which is added the usual panoply of appendices, notes and index, together with a shortlist of background reference material. This is the kind of guide that used to be promoted as suitable for the jacket pocket or handbag; but wherever you choose to carry it Castles in Wales is a worthy companion for those we might call ‘castelophiles’.

Below: a selection of Welsh castles. Raglan (2), Harlech, Carmarthen, Dinefwr, Aberystwyth, Crickhowell, Cardiff (2), Haverfordwest, Pembroke (all author photographs) and, as it was in 1880, Roch in Pembrokeshire

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Note 1. Is Wales the castle capital of the world?
http://www.visitwales.com/things-to-do/attractions/castles-heritage/is-wales-the-castle-capital-of-the-world
Accessed 7th March 2017
Welsh Castles
http://www.wales.com/about-wales/history-ancestry/castles
Accessed 7th March 2017

Note 2. Its area is variously given as 20,760 sq km (8,016 sq miles), 20,779 sq km (8,023 sq mi), or 20,782 sq kms (8,024 sq miles): you may take your pick.

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29 thoughts on “Castelophiles only

  1. When in Wales, my copy is a constant companion, its a great little guide for quick info. I have a similar one for Herefordshire, not the same author, but can’t seem to find one for Scotland, I have large books, but a handy size one would be great 🙂 And thank you I enjoyed your post 🙂

    1. The publishers of Castles in Wales are Y Lolfa, and naturally enough they specialise in Welsh-related material, but I’m surprised there isn’t an equivalent in Scotland with its own castle traditions.

      (Interestingly, Y Lolfa’s website says its origins were in promoting an “irreverent brand of popular and political material” such as that published “a satirical magazine Lol (meaning ‘fun’ or ‘nonsense’), from which the company’s name was derived.” Considering Welsh lol as far as I can see predates textspeak lol, that’s quite a coincidence! (Y Lolfa itself means ‘The Lounge’, but there’s a pun involved with the company name: ‘lol-fa’ seems to imply a place where fun or nonsense is to be had. Anyway, linguistic diversion over!)

  2. Oooh! This is why i’d love to get to this part of the world sometime soon. We don’t have castles in Oz, so they’re quite exotic and interesting to me. Of course, we have lots of other interesting things here, but i really do like ye olde worlde architecture, and i find castles of all shapes and sizes aesthetically pleasing.

    1. I suppose nothing beats the genuine article, does it! Still, I’m sure that some enterprising Oz financier has built themselves a Scottish baronial castle or Tudor gatehouse somewhere in the Blue Mountains which might fit the bill! After all, many US magnates seem to have built the dream for themselves in the past. 🙂

      1. Haha; yeah, there’s probably a few like that around somewhere. Actually, the surrounding landscape of my current residence would lend itself nicely to a castle or two. I’m adding “build a castle” to my list of “things to do once i’m obscenely rich” 😉

        1. You could always have a folly — a prospect tower, say,or mock castle facade — built on the skyline just like those Regency or Victorian romantics did. Saves having to build a full scale version, though it wouldn’t be practical as a residence!

  3. And now I miss the Isles a bit more. 🙂

    Most of my castle visits to date are Irish (Dublin, Trim, & Blarney stand out), among numerous smaller ones mostly around Doolin & the Aran Islands. Plus the Tower, on our one brief trip to London (medievalist/early modernist, had to go).

    1. I’ve seen the Tower but the couple of times I’ve been to Ireland in recent years were on choir trips so never saw any castles (bar a Norman tower in Waterford) so you have one up on me!

  4. Lynn Love

    What a great post, Chris. I love a castle as you can imagine – ruined or whole, love them all.

    We’ve been to Cardiff several times, though there’s little feel of the original castle there and a bit further away, Warwick is lovely but rather ‘Disneyfied’ thanks to Tussauds taking it over (might be owned by some other organisation now I think).

    Wales is definitely castle heavy but thanks to centuries of unrest the rest of the UK has a fair smattering too. We still have remnants (though sadly few) here in Bristol and there’s one in Derbyshire not too far from where my mum lives – Peveril Castle – which is a ruin but a truly picturesque one. It doesn’t really count, but one of my favourite buildings is Stokesay Castle near Ludlow in Shropshire, not really a castle but a fortified manor house. Spent many happy hours there, walking the solar, pretending to be a medieval maid. Loved this post 🙂

    1. Approbation gratefully received, Lynn, thanks! Maybe we’re all castelophiles now …

      Haven’t been to Warwick Castle since I were but a nipper (around 16, actually) but that was pre-Tussauds or Paul Daniels or corporate entity, so can’t really comment. I used to know, Mike Fulford, the archaeologist who excavated Bristol Castle about 30 years ago, and he managed to extract a lot of details from the keep, now represented by those sad few stone courses, in a dip below ground level, next to The Galleries in Castle Park.

      My favourite castle? Hard to tell — if I stick to Southwest England I think Nunney Castle’s rather sweet, Berkeley imposing, and Tintagel dramatic; but then there’s so much variety!

      1. I’d never heard of Nunney before -what a delight. Like a little brother of Bodiam Castle – also a cracker. Yes to both Berkeley and Tintagel. Aren’t we lucky to have such a legacy? Though I’m sure the poor beleaguered folk of the time didn’t feel the same way. Their symbols of oppression become our lovely days out.

        1. Yes, I wonder if we’ll feel the same about private prisons, job centres and tax offices, in their own ways buildings designed to intimidate and oppress us. If, redundant, they fell into ruin would we pay good money to wander through them in a romantic dream?

          1. Ha! I suspect not. But then land is squeezed so much these days they’d be cleared for luxury flats within months. And many of the examples you give will be modern building likely to crumble within years if not maintained, not ease back into the landscape, semi intact as many castles have. Though we do have part of the old prison entrance gate still standing in Bristol and funnily enough, it’s having luxury flats built around it! 🙂

            1. This must be New Gaol, I suppose — about time too, it’s been standing solitary and derelict ever since I remember it in the early 60s, presumably partially Blitzed. Hey, we must sound like old codgers, mustn’t we, “They don’t build ’em like wot they used to in olden times…”

              🙂

            2. Haha! Yes, we must, but it’s also true. There are some flats by the harbour with impractically triangular balconies which had to be shored up and repaired just years after they were built and yet the castles remain. I think you’re right about it being New Gaol. Not sure how it’s going to be integrated in with the new buildings, but I like that they’ve kept it – a dark, brooding ruin, a scene of misery really, beside the thrusting commercialism of the developments. Something fitting in that juxtaposition

  5. We have quite a lot of castles up here in Northumberland too and I’ve visited most of the major ones, but I haven’t had the opportunity to see any of the Welsh castles yet, apart from Cardiff. I’m envious that you’ve been to so many of them!

    1. I wish I’d visited those Northumbrian castles when I had the chance. As it is, the most northeasterly castle we’ve visited — and that to stay in during the student holidays — was Durham, and that hardly qualifies, does it!

  6. I need to revisit Wales, preferably in the company of granddaughter R who has a thing for castles but wistfully yearns for some that aren’t ‘broken’. Our recent UK visit only included those in the latter category.
    The settings of ones I’ve seen in Scotland are hard to beat. Also, I loved Warwick, ‘touristy’ though it may be.

    1. Those still lived in, like Warwick or Windsor, are of course less ‘broken’; and while many British castles have survived — just — through being fashionably romantic ruins, others have received full 19C gothification, notably Castell Coch (“the Red Castle”) just north of Cardiff, which romantic aspect would I’m sure receive granddaughter R’s full approval.

    1. Apart from the mini-essay that is the introduction it’s more a reference book to dip into but I know what you mean. But you’ve very probably seen more of these sites than I have, and would therefore consume this like a novel!

      1. Rather unlikely, unless imagination counts! I’ve only visited a few, alas, mostly ones very local to where I was at the time. My not-so-secret weakness is that I’m very prone to car-sickness, so my parents would never take me on long trips to see stuff. Instead, I used to collect the pamphlets from Caerphilly’s information centre, and read them exhaustively. Tourism from the comfort of home.

        1. “Tourism from the comfort of home.” Sounds very familiar! I too had car-sickness (or at least queasiness) in the back of my parents’ car but, not o strange to relate, found it disappeared when I started driving myself …

          1. It’s fine if I’m the one driving, but if not, I get it worse now than I ever did before! I can get car sick just driving down the road, even if I’m in the front passenger seat. It’s a problem, since I don’t… actually… like driving.

    1. Yes, mostly local — bearing in mind Wales is full of mountains providing barriers but also ready stone! I think some of the castles built by Edward I may have incorporated some imported material, but as many were sited by the sea those materisls could have come in by boat.

      And while the high and mighty invaders may have brought in some of their own specialist workers — architects, military experts, masons, joiners and so on — many locals would have been dragooned into providing manpower whether as owed or as forced labour.

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