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Castell Coch Castle

Castell Coch, situated above the village of Tongwynlais in South Wales, is a 19th century Gothic Revival Castle, which occupies a stretch of woodland on the slopes of the River Taff, around 10.6 kilometres north-west of the centre of Cardiff. Perched high over vertical cliffs and surrounded by dark wooded glades, this Castle emits a definite aura of romanticism and mystery.

History of Castlell Coch

The original castle on the site was probably constructed by the Normans after 1081. Its aim was to protect the newly conquered town of Cardiff, as well as to control the route along the Taff Gorge. It formed one of a string of eight fortifications with this aim, and took the form of a raised, earth-work motte about 35 metres (115 feet) across at the base, and 25 metres (82 feet) on the top, protected by surrounding steep slopes. This structure was probably abandoned after 1093, when the Norman lordship of Glamorgan was created, changing the line of the frontier.

Gilbert de Clare reused the castle’s earth motte after it was abandoned, building a new stone fortification between 1267 and 1277, in order to exert control over his Welsh lands. The newly refurbished Castell Coch, strategically situated between Caerphilly Castle, and Cardiff, was comprised of a shell-wall, a projecting circular tower, a gatehouse and a square hall above an under-croft. Further work between 1268 and 1277 added two large towers, a turning-bridge for the gatehouse and further protection to the north-west walls, making this a small, but powerful, fortification. After Gilbert’s death, the Castle passed on to his widow, and it began to be known as the ‘Castrum Rubeum’, which means ‘the Red Castle’ in Latin. This was probably in reference to the red colour of its sandstone defences. ‘Coch’ in fact means ‘red’ in Welsh. Gilbert’s son, also called Gilbert, inherited the Castle in 1307. He died in 1314, when the Castle itself was destroyed and then slighted, during a Welsh rebellion. (more)

Castle Today

Castell Coch is chiefly known as a romantic medieval folly. Sitting dramatically on top of a short but steep hill, it is an excellent attraction with each room displaying historical artefacts.

When de Clare was rebuilt in stone in the 13th century, it originally sported a round tower keep at the south-western corner of a small D-shaped courtyard, with a hall on the southern side. All this was built out of rubble sandstone from which the building took its name. It stood upon a platform commanding the gorge of the river Taff, and had a deep dry moat to protect it. The Keep contained vaulted rooms, and a conical roof. The two eastern towers, the square gatehouse and the upper hall on the south side were added slightly later. These were much damaged during a Welsh uprising and nothing survived of them. The curtain wall was also thickened during the second building period, and two fighting galleries, as well as a series of embrasures at courtyard level and a roofed-over wall walk open to the court on the inner side, were added.

The actual reconstruction of Castell Coch took place in 1875. On commencement, the Kitchen Tower, the Hall Block and the shell wall were the first to be rebuilt, followed by the Well Tower and the Gatehouse, as well as the Keep Tower. Burges’ drawings were supplemented with a large number of wooden and plaster models of the castle, which are still available to viewers today. During the 19th century rebuilding phase, the older parts of the castle, which were originally made up of red sandstone, were rebuilt using red Pennant sandstone. Burges, the architect in charge, incorporated a wooden bridge and a drawbridge which one had to cross in order to reach the Gatehouse. He did this in order to copy the structure usually adopted by medieval castles. The Gatehouse itself was fitted with a wooden defensive bretache and above the entrance, Burges sited a portcullis and a glazed statue of the Madonna and Child.

The Keep and the Kitchen Tower are both 12 metres (39 feet) in diameter with a square, spurred base. The walls of these two towers are around 3 metres (10 feet) thick at the base, thinning to 0.61 metres (2 feet) at the top. The Well Tower is 11.5 metres (38 feet) in diameter, having a well sunk into the ground at its lowest level. The Well Tower lacks the spurs of the other two towers, and has a flat rather than curved back, facing into the courtyard. The design of the towers was influenced by the architect Eugene Viollet-de-Duc, who had restored the medieval city of Carcassonne in France. While the exterior of the castle is relatively true to the English 13th century medieval style, the inclusion of the conical roofs, is historically inaccurate. Burges chose these roofs mainly for dramatic structural effect. The three towers lead into a small oval courtyard. Cantilevered galleries and wall-walks run around the inside of the courtyard with neat woodwork, complete with arrow-holes.

The architecture is classified as being in the style of the High Victorian Gothic Revival, and it was also influenced by contemporary 19th-century French restorations. Its designs combine the surviving elements of the medieval castle, together with 19th century additions.

The interior of the towers incorporate a series of apartments. In particular, the Hall, the Drawing Room, Lord Bute’s Bedroom and Lady Bute’s Bedroom exemplify the High Victorian Gothic style of 19th century Britain. Unlike the exterior of the castle, which imitates the architecture of the 13th century, the interior is purely Victorian in style. The Banqueting Hall, which is 6.1 by 9.1 metres across (20 by 30 feet) with an 11-metre (35 foot) ceiling, occupies the whole of the first floor of the Hall Block. The featured stencilled ceilings and murals which adorn the Hall resemble medieval manuscripts. Horatio Lonsdale was the chief artist who painted all of the murals within the rooms.

The octagonal Drawing Room focuses on nature and mythology. A fireplace features the three fates, a trio of Greek goddesses, the ceiling is carved with butterflies reaching up towards the sun, while around the room, 58 panels, each depicting a unique plant, are surmounted by a mural showing animals from Aesop’s Fables. Carved birds, lizards and other wildlife decorate the doorways.

Lord Bute’s Bedroom, is relatively small and simple compared to the other main rooms. It contains an ornately-carved fireplace and lushly sculptured furnishings. On the other hand, Lady Bute’s Bedroom, which comprises the upper two floors of the Keep, has a coffered, double-dome ceiling that rises up into the tower’s conical roof, window embrasures which form a sequence of pleasing arches, and is richly decorated with carved monkeys, nesting birds and trees. This room is Moorish in style, having dark red and gold furnishings, a scene of the Arabian Nights and being of an eclectic nature.

Other rooms within the Castle include the Winch Room, which contains the working mechanism for operating the drawbridge and the portcullis, and the Windlass Room, as well as an oratory decorated with stained glass windows, Lady Margaret Bute’s Bedroom, and the servant’s quarters, as well as the kitchen.

The surrounding beech woods contain rare plants and geological features, and are protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. These are known as the Taff Gorge complex. There is also a nine-hole golf course within the site of the former vineyard.

Although Castell Coch is pretty small, it is well-worth the visit, being quite picturesque and very richly decorated. There is a large area for free parking on site, as well as a lovely family-run coffee shop on the ground floor.

Opening Hours of Castell Coch

1 March – 30 June: Daily from 9.30am to 5.00pm
1 July – 31 August: Daily from 9.30am to 6.00pm
1 September – 31 October: Daily from 9.30am to 5.00pm
1 November to end December: Monday to Saturday from 10.00am to 4.00pm, and on Sunday from 11.00am to 4.00pm
Last admissions are 30 minutes before closing. The Castle is closed on 24, 25, and 26 December, as well as 1 January.
Text: Melisande Aquilina