“ Medieval castle in southeast Wales „
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We recently spent a week or so in South Wales and my husband planned an itinerary for us while we were there. As many of you will know a visit to South Wales, or indeed Wales generally could actually take you from one castle to the next for quite some days. We didn't want to be 'castled out' so we chose a few to visit, Chepstow being one.
Chepstow made it on the list because of its position on the river bank ( more like cliff) and the fact that it was on our route towards the Hilton hotel in Newport where we were booked to stay the night.
Chepstow is an ancient town with its castle standing proudly up high I the centre. The town is only just on the Welsh side of the Severn Bridge and in fact if you cross the little bridge over the River Wye just near the castle out of Chepstow you find yourself back in England in Tutshill, in Gloucestershire. We did just that to try and get a nice photo from across the river but it didn't really work.
When you arrive in the little town the castle is signed but it is pretty obvious and when we were there, probably out of season, the car park had plenty of spaces. I believe it was a pay and display but for some reason on the day we went we didn't have to pay, Sunday I think it was. There are public toilets in the car park area but none in the castle so go before heading to the castle!
PRICES AND TIMES
The castle is open daily with a few days closed over Christmas and New Year .
The castle opens at 9.30 am and in winter the castle closes at 4.00 pm but stays open till 6.00 pm in the summer months when it is lighter and some dates it seems to close at 5pm so best check on line if you plan on a visit.
Admission: £4.50 for adults, £3.40 for concessions and £13.50 for a family.
Members of Cadw get in free (kind of Welsh National Trust ) and if you are a member of the English or the Scottish Heritage get a discount. Children under 5, disabled visitors and a companion are also allowed in free.
If you are Welsh/resident in Wales under 16 or over 60. You have to apply for the pass prior to your visit on the Cadw website. Those with a holiday home in Wales cannot get this benefit
You can take dogs into the castle but you have to keep them on leads. We saw a few enjoying the inside of the castle grounds!
A SNIPPET OF ITS HISTORY
Although the town of Chepstow has existed in some form since before the Norman Conquest the castle is less than 1000 years old. It was in fact begun in 1067 and anyone in England will immediately see the significance of this date having had 1066 etched into their brains throughout school and beyond. It was not finished until 1690. The person who initiated the building was a William FitzOsbern but I know no more about him that this.
Over the centuries it was expanded and altered and had a number of famous visitors including royals such as King Edward I in 1284. By the sixteenth century Chepstow castle was really more of a large country home than a defensive castle. It remained loyal to the crown during the Civil War and Cromwell's forces attacked it and took it over in 1648.
Today the castle is pretty much a ruin with only parts still covered by roofs. However it is externally pretty obviously a castle and impressively sited on its hill.
We drove from home and came via the M48 and over the Severn Bridge which was in itself spectacular. We easily found the castle and the car park. The day we visited was a lovely sunny day and a Sunday so there were families sitting on the grassy banks of the hill the castle is perched on. The walk up to the castle is uphill but not that steep.
When you arrive and pay they do warm you about the fact there are no toilets inside. The ticket you buy allows you to go in and out all that day if you need to go out mid visit. We were told that you can take photos for non commercial purposes in most areas and if you were not allowed there were notices to say.
Inside there was a modern covered area which was the souvenir shop. We were asked if we wanted a guide book which we declined. We never know what to do with them after the visit. They should offer to loan them for a small fee and a deposit I think.
In the open area which I believe was the Bailey of the castle was a large tent/marque roof with open sides. I understand they have performances there but there were a number of people just sitting enjoying the shade. We found our way to the walls overlooking the river and enjoyed looking out at the view.
You could go all around the castle climbing up stone steps or constructed wooden steps walking along wooden walkways or the original stone walls. It is quite a large area inside. You do get some fabulous views over the different castle ruins, the river Wye and even Chepstow itself from some places.
I have to warn you that many parts of the castle are not disable friendly and in fact they may even provide a challenge for the able bodied if it is raining as many parts were pretty steep, narrow stone steps and quite slippery. They do however loan mobility scooters and all the ground level is accessible to all.
There are a couple of covered areas where they have recreated the rooms as they might have looked before the castle became ruined. One of these is the earl's chamber recreated to show how Roger Bigod who lived here in the 13th century. We actually quite liked the more naturally ruined parts which have been preserved but not reconstructed. We also liked the fact that you could go wherever you wanted in any order and were left to explore by yourself. This meant we could head for areas where other visitors were not and avoid getting caught up with other people.
There are no official guides offered at the castle but we are not keen on having lots of facts thrown at us and are happy to read the little signs and plaques around the place to find out what we want to know.
Our visits to places like this are more about the experience, the feel and the atmosphere and we don't actually want to know date by date facts about every nook and cranny.
One of the castle's claims to fame is that it has the oldest castle doors in Europe, they are over 800 years old and until 1962 they were still in use. Today they are covered and on display in the castle.
There is no cafe and only the small shop inside so if you are spending longer than a couple of hours or so you may want to take a picnic. If it is a fine day it was be a great place to take older children as they would have lots of fun exploring the ramparts and climbing all the curved stone steps . The bailey with its covered grass area or the hillock outside the wall would both make great picnic spots.
If like us you have not brought a picnic there are a number of pubs and cafes within a few steps of the castle and car park. We visited the pub right next to the car park and it was very pleasant. We had a drink and sandwich each before heading on our way to Newport East Hampton by Hilton for the night.
If you are near this area I would say that this is a great place to visit on a nice day. If it is raining then I would probably suggest leaving it. There are very few covered parts and lots of open slippery stone steps and uneven parts so you do need to wear proper shoes and not heels or flip flops. One woman was tottering around in a ridiculous pair of heeled boots and really struggling in places.
If you are a smoker then please note that all the castle is a no smoking area so you will have to leave the grounds before lighting up.
There is a train to Chepstow on the Cardiff, Cepstow/Gloucester line but I would check if you plan on using public transport.There is also a bus from Monmouth but we cam by car so I am not totally up with trains and buses.
Thanks for reading. We visited four castles while in South Wales, this was our first and very beautiful it was too. We also visited Cardiff Castle, Caerphilly and Castle Coch so reviews of those will follow.
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The castles of South Wales are often unfairly left in the shadow of their better-known North Welsh counterparts. Most people have heard of (and probably visited) castles like Conway, yet far fewer have been to Caerphilly or Chepstow. And that's a shame, because they are just as impressive as their northern counterparts; hidden gems are definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in the area.
Chepstow Castle is very easy to reach by car since it is close to the town centre. There is a car park right by the castle, but if you can't find your way to that, don't worry as there are plenty of others scattered throughout the town centre, all of which are less than 10 minutes' walk away. Town Centre car parks are pretty reasonably priced (around £1.50 for 2 hours parking), although some are quite small, so you might need to try a few before you find a space. If you're feeling particularly cheeky, you can do what Mrs SWSt and I did and park in the Tesco car park on the edge of the town where you can get up to three hours free parking and easy access to the town centre and castle.
Reaching the castle on foot is not quite so simple. We left our car and followed the usual brown signs to the castle, only to find that these soon dried up, leaving us to have to guess the best way to reach it. Although the castle is always in view, the rounds around it are typical of small market towns and often wind around on themselves, so that we seemed to view the castle from almost every angle without ever quite being able to get to it! However, since Chepstow is such a pleasant little town, this is not exactly a great hardship.
A Quick History Lesson
Chepstow Castle is one of the earliest stone built castles in the country, with some sections dating back to Norman times. It has enjoyed a long history as a castle and been rebuilt and developed substantially during the 1000 years or so it has been standing. This makes it really interesting to walk around, as you can see how it developed over the centuries, changing from a defensive fortress in its early years, through to a more luxurious dwelling place in Tudor times, before taking on a defensive role once more during the Civil War. The castle has been built in distinct phases, with each owner and era making their mark.
The castle stands on a hill and follows the bend of the river, which it overlooks. As such, it has a more distinctive shape than many castles. Rather than the traditional square or circular floor plan, Chepstow is very long and narrow - an ideal shape for defensive purposes!
One of the first things that will strike you about Chepstow Castle is its size. From outside, it doesn't look terribly large, and you think it will probably only take around 30-45 minutes to walk around. Only once inside do you realise its true size. Whilst it is quite narrow, it seems to stretch on and on, with section after section climbing up the hill. Mrs SWSt and I spent around 2 hours in there and enjoyed every single minute of it. In fact, Chepstow quickly inserted itself into my list of favourite castles!
The ruins of the main hall (the oldest surviving part of the castle) are very impressive and make you realise how stunning (and intimidating) it must have been when first built. There are towers to climb which offer stunning views across the town of Chepstow and the surrounding countryside and these help you appreciate how big the castle really is and the incredible feat of engineering it represents.
It also does a very good job of telling you about its history. Information boards are placed in pretty much every part of the castle grounds and within some of the buildings, telling you when those particular areas were built and some of their history. These are accompanied by floor plans (which help you see how that room links up with the rest of the ruins) and artist's impressions (showing what the room might have looked like when it was fully functional). These boards are very interesting to read and contain just the right level of detail - enough to help you understand the function of those rooms without swamping you with too many facts and figures.
Best of all is the price. The 2011 price for adult admission to the castle is just £4.00 (£3.60 for concessions). This is superb value for money. English Heritage members can get in for free if they have been members for more than 12 months, or for half price if not. As noted above, we easily spent around 2 hours in there and thoroughly enjoyed it.
As with most castles, of course, there are some accessibility issues. The entranceway to the castle is quite steep and, since the whole site is build around the shape of a hill, there are further steep inclines inside, with the upper parts of the castle being significantly higher than the lower levels. The remaining towers and some of the surviving upper walls will also be inaccessible since they are reached via steep, narrow steps. Even if you are good on your feet, I'd recommend you wear a pair of sturdy shoes from your visit, as the stonework around the castle is uneven from centuries of use and can get be slippery when wet.
Facilities at the site are fairly limited. There is a small gift shop, selling the standard fare offered at all castles in Wales. The only toilets are outside the castle, near the entrance to the car park, so you'd be advised to visit them before you visit the castle, otherwise you will need to come out of the site to use them. Other than this, that is pretty much it. However, this is not really an issue, since Chepstow town centre is very close to hand.
Chepstow Castle is a hidden gem amongst Welsh castles and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as its more famous North Welsh counterparts. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that it is arguably better. A stunning castle giving a real insight into the way castles developed, offering fantastic views and with very reasonable admissions prices. If castles are your thing, then Chepstow should definitely be on your must-visit list.
© Copyright SWSt 2011s
The ancient border town of Chepstow lies just on the Welsh side of the Severn Bridge, close enough that one bridge in the town actually links it with the English village of Tutshill, in Gloucestershire. As you might expect from a settlement placed at such a strategically important point, Chepstow has been in existence for many hundreds of years - certainly since long before the Norman Conquest of England. In fact, there is evidence of human habitation in the surrounding area as far back as 5,000 BC.
== History of the castle ==
Chepstow's most prominent landmark for the last 900 years and more has been its imposing castle. This was begun in 1067, just a year after the Normans invaded, by William FitzOsbern. It was expanded in several stages thereafter, and by the end of Wales as an independent principality in the late 13th century it was at the height of its importance. Indeed, King Edward I visited it when he spent time in Wales in 1284, while the structure was further improved by Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, at around the same time.
From the 14th century onwards, the threat to England from Welsh resistance was greatly diminished, and as such Chepstow Castle became less important militarily. By the time of Henry VIII, its role had shifted more towards that of a fortified manor house rather than a purely defensive structure, although it was to have one last fling during the Civil War, when held by the Royalists and beseiged twice by Cromwell's forces, finally falling to them in 1648.
== The castle today ==
Despite its long history and border location, Chepstow Castle remains mostly intact today, and standing outside its front gate immediately brings home to you just what a formidable structure this must have seemed when it was fully garrisoned centuries ago. Perhaps one reason for its lack of serious decay is that the castle was not left to rot for very long (by these standards) between the end of its time as a serious fortification and the beginning of its use as a tourist attraction; indeed, guidebooks to it exist from the late 18th century.
Chepstow Castle today is managed by Cadw, a Welsh Governmental quango that is the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage. They seem to take a fairly unobtrusive line, which I liked very much. When I was there, there was some fairly heavy-duty maintenance going on, with plenty of activity in the way of scaffolding, lawn mowing and drilling, but only those areas which were truly unsafe were blocked off; there was none of the "we're doing brick work; no public within three miles!" jumpiness you sometimes get at other such sites.
== My experience ==
I was extremely impressed by the great outer wall. The car park is at a slightly lower level than this, so it looks even more imposing than it actually is, but there's no doubt about it: this is a serious castle. Even with vast numbers of children running hither and thither around the grassy banks that lead up to the main gate, the stones themselves held the attention. It would actually be quite easy to stand and gaze at this front wall for some time, and I did - but sooner or later I suppose I had to go in!
Inside the gate is a small modern structure, relatively sympathetically constructed, which houses the admission kiosk and the inevitable gift shop. The staff were friendly and welcoming, something which matters so much in the tourist trade, and the guidebook was genuinely *offered*, rather than being desperately pressed into visitors' hands as an obvious money-maker. Said guidebook is about as much again as the main admission charge, but as that's very reasonable I didn't feel cheated, even if some of the writing seemed a bit awkward.
Inside the walls, you come out into a large - though not enormous - open, grassy area: the bailey. There are a few benches dotted around the edges of this, which in good weather make a nice place to rest and perhaps have a small picnic. There is no set order to move around the castle; you are pretty much left to get on with it and explore at your leisure. Those who prefer a very structured, formal tour might find this a little irritating, but I prefer it that way. (Note that there are no official guided tours available here.)
Most of the castle buildings are still in good enough shape for you to enter, and to climb up to higher floors, an activity which tends to be extremely popular with the more active type of child! Do be aware that some of the spiral staircases are narrow, dark and steep, and the floors often uneven - you definitely need to be wearing comfortable shoes with a good grip around here. There are no really scary open spaces, although those who suffer from vertigo may be well advised to give the higher battlements and walkways a miss.
If you do feel okay about going up high, then it is warmly recommended to do so, partly because of the new angles doing so will give you of the structure of the castle itself, but also because the views are often fantastic. The townward side is perhaps slightly less interesting in this regard, though if you're careful with the framing you can still get some attractive photos; but the castle's dramatic location right on the banks of the River Wye offers some wonderful views along the river valley.
Although a few rooms have been restored to give an idea of how they might have looked in the castle's heyday, for the most part they have been left in their splendid stony grandeur. Plaques dotted around the site give interesting details, and it's recommended that you read them fully, as some of the information they impart is remarkable. For example, in one part of the castle you can clearly see a line of thin flat, red bricks high up around the walls. These are in fact Roman tiles, used by the original castle builders.
== Getting there ==
Chepstow is well placed for visiting by either car or public transport. If you are driving, the M48 motorway across the Severn Bridge passes just south of the town; or you can approach from the north on the slower but often very scenic A466 through the Wye Valley. Chepstow's roads are narrow and winding, but it's not a huge town. There is a pay-and-display car park in front of the castle on the river side.
By train, Chepstow station is on the line between Gloucester and Newport. Trains are roughly hourly at busy times, but less frequent at others, especially on Sundays. Note that disabled access is rather poor, with the only way across the tracks being via a traditional wooden footbridge. It is about a quarter of a mile from the station to the castle. Alternatively, you could come by bus: the X14 service between Bristol and Cwmbran stops here, and runs roughly hourly.
== Admission times and charges ==
The castle is open every day of the year except for a few days during the Christmas and New Year period; it's best to check with Cadw if you're thinking about visiting during the winter holidays. In general the castle opens at 9.30 am, though it's 10.00 am in the low season. Closing time varies between 4.00 pm in the winter and 6.00 pm in the height of summer.
Admission costs £3.70 for adults, £3.30 for concessions and £10.70 for a family. Members of Cadw get in free (and I believe can take one guest per member) and members of English/Scottish Heritage benefit from reciprocal arrangements. It's most definitely worth availing yourself of membership of one of these bodies in any case, partly since that "free guest" allowance is a very nice benefit that the stingy old National Trust don't give you!
On top of this, Welsh residents aged under 16 or over 60 are also exempt from admission charges; if you qualify you will need to apply for a pass, the application form for which is available from the Cadw website. It's made crystal clear on that form that those who only have a *second* home in Wales do not qualify; I suspect there's a little bit of politics behind the big bold letters emphasising that particular criterion!
Dogs are permitted in the castle, but must be kept on a lead at all times. You are allowed to take photos (for non-commercial use) including inside the buildings, unless there are signs specifically requesting otherwise. You are allowed to have a picnic on the open grassy area inside the outer walls, though do note that the only public toilets are outside in the car park! The whole site, inside and out, is a non-smoking area.
== Verdict ==
Chepstow Castle is an enjoyable place to spend a few hours, though the many open areas and the slipperiness underfoot do mean that it's perhaps not the best option in poor weather. It's not suitable for a full day, especially given the lack of catering, but a trip here could be nicely combined with a meal at one of the many pubs and restaurants within easy walking distance of the place. The admission charges are reasonable and the general atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. All in all, recommended.