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Continuing the tour of castles and abbeys which I've been writing about recently, we come to the curiosity that is Castell Coch. Sitting on a hillside a couple of miles out of Cardiff, Castell Coch (or Red Castle) is a stunning looking fairy tale castle and a testament to what a combination of too much money and a romanticised view of the past can do!
Castell Coch is very easy to find. It's clearly signed from the A470, which is the main road linking Cardiff with the South Wales Valleys. Take the exit for Taffs Well and from here, the castle is very well signed and less than a five minute drive. The only thing to watch out for is that the entrance to the castle driveway can be quite easy to miss, since it's located on a corner and up a fairly steep hill.
Let the Train Take the Strain
Ironically, if you really want to appreciate the beauty of Castell Coch, I'd recommend getting the train from the Valleys into Cardiff first. Shortly after you pass thorough Taffs Well station, you get a magnificent view of the castle sitting proudly on top of its hill and looking out over Cardiff and the surrounding area. Viewing it in this way gives you a better chance to see the castle as a whole - something which you lose slightly, the closer to it you get.
All History is Bunk
Castell Coch is a fascinating (if odd) mix of the old and the (relatively) new. The site on which it is built is the site of a genuine medieval castle, although there is very little of that now. In the late 19th Century, however, the Marquis of Bute (reputedly the richest man in the world at that point) and the parrot obsessed architect/designer William Burges decided to rebuild it from scratch.
Rather than using a template of the other famous castles in Wales, they decided to create a fairy tale castle based on those which can be found on the banks of the Rhine. They supplemented these using historical manuscripts to inform the layout and design of the castle, together with a healthy dose of imagination! In other words, in some ways the castle is an authentic German castle built on the banks of the River Taff. However, where historical fact didn't suit them (or where there was no evidence to the contrary) they built it on the lines of what they THOUGHT a medieval castle should look like, rather than on reality!
The Castle Today
Since it is actually a relatively modern structure, the castle is still pretty much complete and large parts of it - including several of the turreted towers - are accessible to visitors. Although a relatively small property, there is actually a lot to see - although some areas may be inaccessible to anyone with mobility problems, since many of the rooms are on upper levels, up a number of steps.
The rooms themselves are fascinating, and whilst they are very over the top, it is unlikely you will ever have seen anything like it (unless you are familiar with Burges' style, in which case it is instantly recognisable).
Burges and Bute drew their inspiration from every source imaginable and tried to cram all these themes into the castle decoration. As a result, every room has so much detail that it is incredible. Intricately drawn wall decorations feature animals by the dozen, walls and ceilings incorporate images from legends, fables and mythologies from across the world. One room, for example, contains several depictions of tales from Aesop's Fables and it's fascinating to look around you and see how many of the fables you can identify. Some rooms are dominated by massive, colourful statues of figures from Greek mythology, whilst another room contains a graphical portrayal of the supposed hierarchical nature of the universe, rising up to the ceiling. Every room is a riot of colour and there is so much detail and so many things for you to try and spot that you can easily find yourself losing a good 90 minutes inside the castle.
Even if you think that the incredibly ornate decoration is rather vulgar and over-the-top (I do!), it's hard not to be impressed by the scale and grandeur of the vision, the riot of colour and competing architectural styles which make up this romanticised vision of life in a medieval castle. Mind you, the in-your-face nature of the decoration does mean that whilst Castell Coch is a nice place to visit, you wouldn't want to live there - at least not without a steady supply of migraine tablets! This is probably the one major criticism of the site. Impressive though the decoration is, after a while, it does become a little overwhelming.
Even today, the castle has a "lived in" feel to it as though it was only vacated recently - which is ironic since Bute hardly every stayed there. Indeed, you wouldn't be at all surprised if you encountered some servants scurrying about their business as you look around or Bute and Burges themselves standing discussing architectural plans. One thing is for certain, Castell Coch is very different from the dusty, dry, ruined castles you normally see.
I've visited the castle several times over the years, as I used to live in the area, and I've never failed to enjoy it. Since it is on a much smaller scale and essentially purpose built as a folly, I don't mind the elaborate decorations and pompous statues. Certainly, I find it much more enjoyable than Cardiff Castle (another Bute/Burges collaboration) which for me is a genuine medieval castle which has been ruined by the pair.
There are also a number of excellent exhibitions scattered throughout the property which chart the development of the castle and how Bute and Burges (who died before the castle was completed) went about reconstructing it. They also point out some of the things you should look for as you walk around the castle and might otherwise miss. It is a shame that the rooms themselves don't contain some of this information (the castle is still decked out as though it is lived in, so there are no information boards in any of the rooms), as if you have missed something, it means backtracking if you want to see it properly.
Since it sits on top of a large hill, many of the rooms also offer stunning views across Cardiff and the surrounding area and it's almost worth going just to look out of the windows. There are also some very pleasant woodland walks in the area immediately surrounding the castle, which makes it a very nice place to spend a warm, summer afternoon (not that we had many of those this year).
A Costly Business?
Not at all. Castell Coch may have cost a fortune to build and furnish, but today's visitor is in for a pleasant surprise. 2011 admission prices are £3.80 for adults and £3.40 concessions. There's easily an hour's worth of looking for that price, and if you want to, you could easily spend twice that taking in the detail in every room.
Facilities at the site are quite limited. Essentially, there is a car park (usually adequate for the amount of visitors), a small gift shop (selling the usual CADW/historical site stuff), a tea room (which we didn't visit) and a couple of toilets. However, since Cardiff is so close by, you can always pop into there to get your fix of retail therapy!
Castell Coch is a very different example of castle and a stunning example of what one man's money and one man's (slightly odd) vision can achieve. Ridiculous, over-the-top, exuberant and imposing, whether you like Burges' style or not, Castell Coch really has to be seen to be believed.
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If you are intending to visit Wales this summer you'll probably think about mountains, beaches, villages with unpronounceable names, and, of course, castles. Wales has a plethora of castles, ranging from the grand splendor of Caeravon and Cardiff, to smaller Norman garrisons and the ruins of little-known Welsh lords. There are also a few 'folly's' and later built castles with shorter pedigrees, for no Welsh castle can really be counted as one unless it dates back to at least the Norman conquest, when the English built them to subdue the last of the Celts.
Castell Coch, or the 'Red Castle' is located just North of the South Wales valleys and the capital city of Cardiff. It stands an imposing but strangely compelling sight among giant beech woods and rising from the ruins of earlier castles. Traveling along the M4 motorway you can't really miss it as it was built on a natural ledge of Carboniferous Limestone at the mouth of the Taff Gorge, (The Taff River gorge).
From a distance you could be in France among vineyards with a chateau basking in the sunshine. Or, if you're a romantic, you'll be reminded of King Arthur's castle and the 'Many Towered Camelot' of Tennyson's epic poem, 'the Lady of Shallot.'
Certainly the conception, design and building of the castle is a romantic story of itself and a tribute to two prominent figures of the nineteen century, the third marquess of Bute, John Patrick Crichton-Stuart and the famous architect, the eccentric genius, William Burges. Indeed, I could review the lives of both and still not touch on their joint projects, of which there are many in Wales. However, the castle is well worth visiting, so let's look quickly at its curious background.
Undoubtedly there would have been a castle or stronghold at this location from the early days of Welsh history. Many castles were built prior to the Norman invasion and later; King Edward 1st decided to hem his troublesome neighbors in by building castle all along the borders. Around 1290 the powerful Clare lords of Glamorgan became increasingly worried by the growing threat of prince Llewellyn of Wales and it's likely that the fortress of the Red castle was built around that time, certainly using the ruins of an earlier building. This came be seen by some of the architecture of the present-day castle, by comparing it to similar constructions. It's unfortunate that there aren't any written records of those times, though in his survey of 1850, the engineer and pioneer of British castle studies, G.T.Clark, prepared a full site evaluation for Lord Bute. Enough though he found the ruins thickly grown over, he was able to take accurate measurements and published the first plan of the castle. This was the foundation on which Burges based his wonderfully detailed drawings of the proposed fairy-tale castle in 1872. Circumstances conspired against him and the castle wasn't started until 1875, halted by his untimely death in 1881 and finally completed by his own assistants and craftsmen a decade later.
The Castle and Interior Design.
The approach to the castle is firstly by way of road up a steep hill. Once you leave the car park there is a steep walk up to the castle proper. Although it's theoretically possible to push a wheelchair up the pathways, I would find it hard going on foot now. The last time I visited was in April 2010 and I found it difficult then. I was lucky enough to have my daughter with me and that helped to re-capture the earlier pleasure of previous visits.
The drawbridge is a central feature of the castle approach and allows the visitor the experience of looking up through the gatehouse. Since the castle is circular in style, the first two towers dominate the approach to the interior and it's quite eerie to look up at the skyline dominated by the conical roofs of the Keep and Well towers. Some of the medieval masonry remains here, which gives an air of authenticity to the castle buildings. Burges raised and enhanced the towers, but rebuilt the three-storey gatehouse on the basis of the rectangular plan of the wall footings excavated in 1871.
Entering through the courtyard after paying the entrance fee, there is a lack of the expected rugged appearance of the inner ward of a medieval fortification. Instead, despite being overlooked by the three towers the appearance is distinctly romantic, again seeming to have that French influence. Around the courtyard are magor stone-vaulted rooms within the lower storeys, ranging from the simple basement dungeon of the Well Tower to the broad rib vaults in the basements of the Kitchen Tower. The courtyard is circled by covered walkways on several levels, a delight for children to race around while the parents can read up on the design. This is also where I leave the remaining descriptions to memory rather than glance back at my guidebook. A review should be both factual and personal, and although I've written about what I know, I've had to check some of the dates and this has stemmed the flow of writing somewhat.
At the last time of visiting a lot of the castle was open to the public as it was the start of the Easter season. There was an Easter-egg hunt for the children, with clues hidden in the form of tiny gold eggs. This wasn't as easy as it sounds since a lot of the rooms are furnished in the original fittings and furniture, so it was harder to spot anything gold in the sumptuous room decoration. There was also a Knight training session going on in the courtyard, with a realistic knight in Armour and plastic training swords for the children who wished to join in. Jack was happy to follow us along the inside rooms, though keen to look for his 'egg' clues.
First we ascended the Kitchen Tower as it was the littlest of the three. Although beautiful in design, this housed the back of the gatehouse, so was more of a start to the main tour. Also, since this castle was meant as a summer residence for Lord Bute the tower rooms were kept fairly simple in design. A servant's staircase led from here to the entrance to the banqueting hall. This is on the first-floor gallery level and the first of the furnished rooms. This room is sumptuous in design with a gilded chimneybreast, large open windows with views over Cardiff and exquisite murals along the walls. The central table looks ready to dine from and would comfortably serve a banquet. The main colours in this room are red and gold, with the ceiling design in richly stenciled relief.
Many of the rooms have this feature, the ceilings are richly decorated in several different patterns, many fanciful with leaf motifs, carved vaults featuring squirrels, birds, mice and vine leaves.
From the Banqueting Hall we pass into the Drawing room and Jack finds another egg in one of the many wall niches. We stare in wonder at the pièce-de-resistance, the Three-storeyed vaulted ceiling with its fabulous arches and glorious ceiling radiating out from a starburst design to incorporate a cascade of birds, butterflies, and stars, all representing the fecundity of nature. A section of one mural shows one of Aesop's fables. The focus of the Drawing room though has to be the striking chimneypiece with the figures of the three fates. We meditate on its timeless message of the threads of life, while Jack tugs at us to explore the next room.
The Winch Room.
From the Drawing room you take the smaller doorway out into the corridor and a newel staircase, which leads to the working winch room. The contraption of the portcullis looks alarming and I can imagine the boiling oil being poured through the 'murder holes' made to catch unwary visitors below. We pass quickly through this and ascend the turnpike stair eventually leading into: -
Lord Bute's Bedroom.
I remember being disappointed by this room. It was evidently a late change and fairly austere compared to some of the other designs. The room' s well decorated with large well-lit windows. The décor is mainly blue again with the ubiquitous wildlife. It's far more of a commander's room and has the trappings of soldiery. There's a remarkable bed and a hipbath, rather modern in some ways. We looked around, Jack found his egg and we moved off to view Lady Bute's bedroom.
The furnishing in this room is distinctly Moorish and complements the overall design. Its painted panels are heavily Gothic with another strong chimneypiece. This room is at the top of the tower and it's ceiling is making me giddy. Highly ornate, I find a wish for something simpler for a change and find it as we explore Lady Margaret's bedroom in the Kitchen tower. The cream furniture is the original and compliments the restrained coloring of this pretty room. By now we are all ready for a cuppa and only visit the main castle kitchen in the kitchen tower. It's on the way to the restaurant and a well-deserved rest for us.
There is plenty more to see and if it's a nice day the grounds are heavenly in any season. I've missed out some of the wall walks, as these are fairly much the same in most castles. For those interested in the architecture I recommend the Cadw book, at only £3.50 it's a wealth of information and has some lovely pictures.
Prices at time of admission are as follows: -
Family Price: 11.
If you do want to visit, you might like to check the Cadw website.
As always, thanks for reading.