Castell Coch was built for the immensely rich 3rd Marquess of Bute, who employed William Burges as his architect and designer. They conceived the idea of rebuilding the ruined medieval Castell Coch and fitting it out with a stylish Victorian interior. Work went on from 1875-91. Burges used the stumps of the original towers and curtain wall, but above that level used his own imagination. In particular, the striking conical tower roofs cannot be references to any original British roofs.
Two of the towers are fitted out as a lavish country home and banquet venue, while the third tower, with a plainer interior, was probably used to accommodate servants. There is no guest accommodation, and it seems that the completed castle was rarely used.
The first sight of the castle, with its unequal round towers and pointy roofs, is pure Disney :-). The internal courtyard, with its covered walkways, may not strike visitors as being particularly medieval, though such features were known in the medieval period.
Indoors, the banqueting hall with its painted walls and ornate barrel boarded ceiling is an impressive room. Next door is the vaulted and multi-sided Drawing Room, probably the finest room in the castle. Above the fireplace is the ‘Three Fates’ a brightly coloured piece of statuary. The lower parts of the walls are paneled. Above that the walls are painted with a design of various animal fables. Above that are galeried recesses, and above them the vault with birds and stars.
Another impressive room is Lady Bute’s Bedroom, a large rounded room surmounted by a mirrored dome. In the lower part the decoration is Moorish, while in the dome the five rows of painted panels of plants and animals suggest the Aesthetic movement.
Also of note are Lord Bute’s Bedroom and the children’s room.
I would suggest visiting Castell Coch followed by the more extravagant Cardiff Castle. It is possible to look around Castell Coch in an hour and a half, so it is easily possible to visit both in one day.
If arriving by car from the south or east, the route involves going up the busy A470 dual-carriageway, coming off at a roundabout and then going south again on a parallel road before passing through the village of Tongwynlais. If using a sat-nav, do not turn right into Catherine drive from Castle Rd – the castle entrance is nearby on the left.
Cardiff Castle as one sees it today is mostly of Victorian construction, but it was founded as a Roman fortified camp. A Norman castle keep on a mound (motte) was built within the walls. A medieval mansion followed. The keep was severely damaged in the English Civil war. The mansion went through various changes and extensions, most notably at the hands of the immensely rich 3rd Marquess of Bute and his architect and designer, William Burges.
Bute also had the perimeter walls you see today re-created on their Roman foundations.
Some of Burges’ work can be seen on the exterior of the mansion, but the full effect is seen inside, where many room interiors can only be described as jaw-dropping, as Burges’ extravagant homage to the medieval period is given full reign.
Only about seven rooms are open to general visitors, and if you pay the £2.50 supplement for a guided tour, you are shown several more, but not the entire interior. In fairness, the typical room contains a vast amount of decorative detail for the eye to take in; a riot of colorful moldings, carvings, wall-painting and furniture.
Asides from the mansion, don’t miss climbing up the keep (if you are fit), and exploring Lord Bute’s tunnel built into his wall and extending around three sides of the site. The tunnel was used as a shelter during WWII and contains WWII relics, plus sound effects. In the cafe, look at a section of original Roman wall.
Despite the size of the site, it’s possible to have a look round it all in about two hours.
If you are travelling by car, you may prefer to use the city’s park and ride. When you get off the bus, ask someone to point you in the direction of the castle.
Ty Mawr Wybranat is a traditional stone-built upland farmhouse, set in the heart of the beautiful Conwy valley. The site is very important in the history of the Welsh language, as Bishop William Morgan once lived here. Morgan translated the Bible into Welsh, and in the process produced a standardised version of Welsh and guaranteed the survival of the language. The buildings indicate how people once lived here without modern comforts, and house an impressive collection of Bibles in nearly 100 languages. Don’t miss the opportunity of chatting with the warden.
In former times the region was much less isolated, as a major drover’s road went through the valley (think mediaeval M4).
Surrounding the property are opportunities for woodland walks.
Warning for Satnav and Google Map users:
The National Trust direction to approach via the village of Permachno (A5/B4406) should be treated as an instruction, not a suggestion! This route is single-track, steep, narrow and twisty, but at least it’s a road, and leads to the car park 500 yards above the house. The alternatives are farm and forest tracks – you can get a road car through, but when you find what they’re like – gated, overgrown, and no passing places – you’ll soon wish you hadn’t started. Do not approach via a turning off the A470.
You can walk from Pont-y-Pant railway station, (2.5 miles) but be aware that this is a bog-and-mountain trek, not a nice stroll. You should take hiking boots, OS map, and compass as there is no obvious trail.
(Don’t complain about the bilingual road-signs when visiting Wales: the Welsh-speakers are very fond of them and would be quite happy to have them monolingual – in Welsh! The rebels used to drive around at night covering English-only signs in green paint…)
Plas yn Rhiw is a house of 16th century origins, rescued from dereliction and restored by the three Keating sisters, who bought it in 1938. Architect Clough Williams-Ellis (of Portmeirion fame) had a hand in the restoration. Externally the house has an imposing Georgian frontage and beautiful gardens on a steeply sloping site overlooking Cardigan Bay. Signs of the raising of the 2nd storey walls in the early 1800s can be seen in the stonework. There are spectacular views from the house looking across the bay. Outbuildings from an earlier period of the estate’s history, some ruined, lie near the house or in the gardens.
Inside, many of the rooms seem cramped and old-fashioned, and contain a clutter of the Keatings’ possessions. Elegant Georgian chairs, fur coats and gloves indicate comfortable gentility. Contents include Honoria Keating’s landscape paintings, period furniture, a library reflecting their interests, and 1930’s domestic electrical appliances.
The site near the tip of the Gwynedd peninsula is somewhat remote, but the effort of getting there is well repaid.
The railway runs from the coastal town of Porthmadog to the hill town of Ffestiniog, a climb of 700 ft. The route includes a causeway, a short tunnel and a complete spiral, passing forests, lakes and a dam. The narrow-gauge railway was established in the 1830’s for carrying slate downhill to the port, and in the 1860’s was converted to steam traction. It also carried passengers. The slate industry declined and the line closed in 1946. Volunteers and enthusiasts re-established the railway from 1955. By 1982, the track, including the Great Deviation to avoid a new hydro-electric dam, reached a new narrow gauge/standard gauge interchange station at Blainau Ffestiniog.
Today it is a popular tourist attraction, connecting with Conwy Valley Network Rail trains at Ffestiniog and with West Highland Railway narrow-gauge trains at Porthmadog.
The views from the train are often spectacular, and at the upper end of the route parts of the original trackbed can be seen. There are useful-looking stops en route.
Railway buffs can admire the unique double-ended steam engines and the period rolling stock. Practical Notes: Parking in front of the Porthmadog station is extremely limited, but there is pay parking nearby, e.g behind the nearby supermarket. There is parking at Blainau Ffestiniog station. Hard-up families may note that there is a Porthmadog – Ffestiniog double-decker bus service, which presumably provides a scenic route at much lower cost. The Conwy Valley Network Rail route is said to be very scenic. You could make a railway-themed day out by starting from Porthmadog, taking the connecting Network Rail to Betws-y-Coed, visiting the miniature railway museum beside the station, etc, and then returning.
Dolbadarn Castle was built by the Welsh prince Llywelyn the Great during the early 13th century. Originally there were three towers, a hall and an East building within the walls on the hilltop, but only the round tower survives to any height. It was taken by the English in 1283. They removed timbers from it to build Caernarfon castle, but parts of the castle continued to be used as a manor house into the 14th century.
The keep is still an impressive structure, and the internal spiral staircase can still be accessed to climb from first to second floor levels, though the timber floors no longer exist. There are fine views from the castle mound.
Once you know where the castle is (it is visible from the narrow-gauge railway, near the LLanberis stop), it is easily reached on foot from LLanberis. There is no admission charge.
Llanberis lake area has a number of attractions, including the lake, the lakeside railway, the Snowdon mountain railway, Electric Mountain power station tour, Dolbadarn castle, and the slate museum. It is difficult to find anywhere to park around here where you won’t be charged for the privelege of supporting local tourism. If you park in the car park next to the principal narrow-gauge rail station and Slate Museum, you will also be within walking distance of the Dolbadarn Castle, the Visitor Centre for the Electric Mountain power station tours, and the terminus for the Snowdon railway.
If you are interested in civil engineering the power station visit is well worth while. They don’t like you to take cameras or mobile phones on the tour, and after the introductory film show the second stop is the lockers where you are directed to lock away the ‘banned’ items.
The narrow-gauge lakeside railway is more a mobile viewing platform than a means of transport, hence it does not stop at “all stations” as you might expect. (See their website). The published timetable shows trains starting from the principal station (Gilfach Ddu) by the Slate Museum, not the end of the line at Llanberis.
All the above are worth trying, depending on your interests and budget. Note that the Snowdon Mountain Railway is expensive, and if the weather at the summit is forecast clear, book ahead, as you probably will not be able to just turn up and go! The Slate Museum is free, but if you are trying to cram a lot into the day, note that while it closes at 5.00pm, sections of the site are being shut down from around 4.30 pm onwards.
The power station visit is recommended for those with an interest in Real Engineering – see the miles of access tunnels, the vast underground halls, the house-sized inlet valve, and the turbine festooned with hydraulic actuators and pipework. The plant can generate enough power to supply the whole of Wales.
Criccieth Castle is a native Welsh castle whose remains dominate the coastal town of Criccieth. The castle was apparently commenced at the beginning of the 13th century. Later, it was occupied for a time by the English, who are thought to have remodelled it. It was destroyed by the Welsh during Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion in the 14th century.
The remains are dominated by the gatehouse, which looks like an English design but was almost certainly built by the Welsh. There are superb views from the castle mound as far as Harlech, Snowdonia, etc. Bring your binoculars.
The castle is worth a visit if you are in the area. Given its ruined state, looking at the castle will not detain you very long.
Portmeirion is one of the premier visitor attractions in Wales. It is situated just outside Porthmadog, overlooking the sea. Best known as the set of Patrick McGoohan’s “The Prisoner” TV series, it is also a mid-priced hotel complex. Visitors can enter the Village area daily on payment of a fee.
Portmeirion was originally developed by architect Clough Williams-Ellis to demonstrate that commercial development to re-vitalise an estate could be carried out without ugly over-development. The quaint Italianate ‘Village’ occupies a quite small part of the estate. The buildings and terraces incorporate bits of architectural salvage, obtained cheaply by Williams-Ellis in the days when any old and surplus building could be summarily knocked down. Many of his structures are just one room deep or are painted with ‘tromp d’oeil’ effects.
There are the usual facilities of a large visitor attraction. There is a ‘land train’ to encourage visitors to get out of the village and explore the miles of paths and the grounds with their lakes and sub-tropical plants.
The ‘Village’ buildings form part of the hotel room and self-catering accommodation. There is also the shore hotel and Castell Deudraeth hotel, which you may glimpse as you drive in.
Portmeirion has its own website.
Harlech Castle was built by Edward I in 1283-1289 to subdue the Welsh. It was designed by the brilliant castle builder Master James of St George, and is one of a ring of great castles built to encircle North Wales. Today, the stone shell of the castle is still substantially complete, and it dominates the flat coastal land far below. The castle was intended to be resupplied by sea, and a defensible stairway leading down to water level still exists.
The large gatehouse is impressive whether viewed from the inside or the outside. The castle was originally surrounded by a lower outer wall which formed a narrow outer ward, but this outer wall is now much reduced in height.
Inside the single inner ward are the footings of various buildings, and the grand stair giving access to the lodgings in the gatehouse. Stairs in the eastern towers give access to the walkway on top of the main walls.
An impressive and substantially complete castle, well worth a visit.
If you are travelling to Harlech from the Menai area of North Wales, note that the A487 is a much faster road than the alternatives, and the “Toll” flagged up by your satnav is a single-track and toll-bridge shortcut across the Traeth Bach estuary east of Porthmadog, which costs 50p.