South Wales Trip: Part 2

A busy few days in South Wales; our destinations have included Cardiff, Castell Coch, Caerphilly Castle, Caerleon and Chepstow.

Cardiff Castle has been on our “to do” list since October 2018 when we visited Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute in Scotland. Back in the late 19th century, the 3rd Marquess of Bute happened to have a seriously dilapidated castle on his lands down in Cardiff and used the same architect as at Mount Stuart, William Burges, to do it up….

We’d booked into the council-run campsite at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff, from where it was a walk in the park (quite literally) to get to the castle. Mark particularly liked the “animal wall” as we approached the entrance. Clearly, the 3rd Marquess hadn’t been overly concerned about cost at this property either. “Animal statues on top of the wall? Yes, let’s have some of those”….

The late 11th century Norman Keep is still there and is very cute (if you can use the word “cute” to sescribe a castle?):

Tunnels within the walls, added so as to be able to exercise in typical Welsh weather without getting drenched, were used as air raid shelters during the Second World War:

The main accommodation range at the castle combines earlier structures with some Burges additions:

The things on the lawn above, by the way, are crosses. It’s that time of year:

We got a very good castle tour (you pay a little bit extra for the tour, but it gets you into quite a few rooms that you otherwise wouldn’t get to see). The interior really is full-on William Burges:

Overall… well… yes… erm… it’s very impressive in its detail but whereas Mount Stuart is just beautiful, I thought Cardiff Castle was just that bit too OTT to be liveable in. Perhaps that’s one reason why the Butes only spent a few weeks each summer in Cardiff? It did remind me of my vist to Knightshayes, a fabulous (I thought) National Trust property, back in April 2016 – the family there had hired and then sacked William Burges back in the 1870s. The next architect toned the designs down quite a bit but the family still ended up painting over much of it……

Neither of us had either visited Cardiff before (strange but true….) so we spent the rest of the day wandering. One thing I hadn’t been aware of is just how far the Cardiff Docks area is from the main city centre (and Mark was surprised that the part in between seemed so run down; he’d expected it to be full of shiny new apartment blocks). Here’s the standard view of Cardiff we always get on the Welsh TV news (which is probably why we had thought this stuff was in / near the city centre):

On the right is the Senedd building, the home of the Welsh government. One disadvantage of having a completely glass exterior, it struck me, is that the plebs outside can see that there’s really not a lot of activity going on in there… Luckily for the Welsh Assembly, the only people outside were us and some kids skateboarding out front. “It’s not exactly buzzing around here, is it?” said Mark…

The impressive building on the left is the Pierhead building, constructed in the 1890s. It’s Bute money again, but by this time William Burges had died so another architect was used. They did need a decent admin. building down at the docks: by that time, Cardiff was the largest port in the World in terms of export tonnage (all that Welsh coal…..). It’s free to go in and look around.

Peeping out from the back of the photo is the Wales Millennium Centre, not quite as huge as I’d imagined it (but then that’s often the way with these things):

Finally, a short distance away, the Norwegian Church, built back in the day for Norwegian sailors. Nowadays, it’s a Norwegian Art Centre and coffee shop. It was closed for a function when we visited, so I can’t tell you whether it a) sells Scandi-style buns in the coffee shop or b) charges Norwegian prices….

We hadn’t quite finished with William Burges for this trip. From the top of the Norman keep at Cardiff Castle, you can just see the pointed turrets of Castell Coch (“red castle”) poking out between the trees in the distance.

This was the ruin of a small medieval castle that the 3rd Marquess just happened to have on his land, so he decided to have William Burges rebuild it as a sort of a holiday home.

It’s wildly impractical. There’s no guest accommodation at all and it’s not known where the servants were supposed to sleep. There are lots of narrow spiral staircases. Indeed, Lady Bute’s bedroom is right at the top of a tower up a staircase so narrow that you did have to wonder how she was supposed to get up there wearing the women’s clothing of the day.

The interiors are as understated as you’d expect:

At least Castell Coch was within easily travelling distance of Cardiff Castle, so they could just pop up there for a picnic then head back to their creature comforts at Cardiff…. How the other half live!

Our next destination looked much more austere! Caerphilly Castle is the largest castle in Wales:

Built in the late 13th century by a Marcher lord, Gilbert de Clare, it’s similar in style to the castles Edward I had built in North Wales just a few years later (Caernarfon, Conwy, Beaumaris etc). Concentric castles, whereby inner rings of defences overlook the outer rings, were all the rage back in the day….. The somewhat worse for wear tower on the right hand side of the picture is apparently leaning at a greater angle than the famous tower in Pisa….

All good castles need a story to tell, and Caerphilly is no exception. Edward II briefly took shelter here in the 1320s whilst fleeing from the forces of his wife Isabella, who went on to depose him in favour of their young son, Edward III. Families, eh?

Normally when he comes across modern art, Mark mutters “Art? Fart…” and moves swiftly on, but he did say that this was a rare example of art that was actually helpful. There were four figures on display, representing the four main figures in the story (Edward II, Isabella, Edward’s “favourite” Hugh Despenser, and Isabella’s fancy man Roger Mortimer), with information on the back of each explaining each one’s role in the story.

Thankfully, the weather was a little bit less damp and grey for our next visit, which was to Caerleon near Newport. This was one of the few permanent legionary bases in Roman Britain (the others being Chester and York).

The ampitheatre:

This is what it would have looked like:


You can also visit part of the Roman baths and a small museum nearby. The most intriguing thing in the museum was a set of engraved gemstones found in 1979 in the drains at the baths. There were 88 of them featuring tiny engraved figures. These would have been set into jewellery such as rings and must’ve fallen out whilst their owners were in the baths!

We had to laugh at the little cards indicating where some of the gemstones are currently missing as they’ve been loaned out – they’ve gone to a special “Rings of Power” exhibition at the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte in Halle which we visited in September this year… As we were bumbling our way back home from that trip, they probably passed us on the motorway, heading in the opposite direction!

We were now getting very close to the English border again. Our last stop before the border was at Chepstow, a lovely little town with a fabulous castle:

We both agreed that this castle was one of the highlights of the trip. Somehow, these smaller castles seem to fit into their landscapes much more dramatically than the larger castles.

There’s no chance of anyone successfully attacking from the river side!

The marketing bods had clearly been to Chepstow too. Here, rather than picking out a particular story from the castle’s rich history, they’ve gone with the “we’ve got the oldest xyz” theme….

This is apparently the oldest surviving secular decoration in Britain (late 11th century – yep, this part of the castle is really old):

A clue – the bit of red with crosses etched in it in the far left archway is a reconstruction to show you what you might, with a lot of imagination, be able to make out in the other alcoves!

The oldest castle gates in Europe (apparently):

The wood has been dated to the 1090s. The thing that I found particularly impressive about these gates is that they actually hung at the castle entrance right through until the 1960s, when someone decided that perhaps they really should put them somewhere a bit more sheltered!

From here, the plan is to cheat a bit (on a trip to South Wales) by popping across the border into the neighbouring counties of England for a few days…


  1. We’ve stayed at Sofia gardens a few times, often for rugby. Some nice Victorian arcades. And found a Leslie plaque in the castle … my maiden name! Hate to tell you … our skies are mostly blue in Crete.


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