After leaving London and its (in)famous Tower, we actually didn’t visit a castle for an entire week! This is because we were too busy basing ourselves in Bristol and visiting Lacock Abbey, Bath (so pretty!), Stonehenge (very dramatic!), and Salisbury Cathedral (awe-inspiring!). We then drove over the River Severn and into the ancestral home of my Dad’s side of the family- Wales! We arrived the day before the opening of the 2016 Golden Oldies World Rugby Festival in Cardiff, our actual reason for the holiday in the first place, since my Dad was playing. I could go on about the festival itself, but that’s not what this post is about! On our first non-game day of the week, we made my way to Cardiff Castle, walking distance from our hotel in the centre of the city. I had technically been there already, since our opening march started at the castle, but hadn’t had the chance to explore.
The first thing I did in the castle was pay the extra £3 on top of the entrance fee to join the next available house tour. Considering the tour is 50 minutes long with an experienced guide, and you get to see parts of the house you can’t see by just exploring yourself, it’s well worth the money. And you simply can’t go to Cardiff Castle without going into the house, because it is absolutely magnificent inside, with every room richly decorated with gilding, carvings, and paintings. These are not original, but there is a very interesting story behind them.
When the castle came into the hands of John Crichton-Stuart, the Third Marquess of Bute, in the 1800s, he decided he wanted to completely renovate the interior of the house. Fascinated with medieval decor, the Marquess employed William Burges, and the two together formulated and created what is seen today; rooms that are amongst the most magnificent of the Gothic Revival style. Our tour started in the Clock Tower, an 1868 addition to the castle that houses bachelor rooms, including a bedroom, servant’s room, and the summer and winter smoking rooms. The summer smoking room is only accessible on a separate tour, but the winter smoking room was the first we entered. This room completely blew me away, and I could have stared at the painted ceiling for hours. Everything was incredibly detailed, from the depiction of a hunt across the fireplace, the representations of Morning, Afternoon, Evening, and Night in the corners and the weekdays on the windows, and even the monster painted above the entrance, designed to scare off women so they don’t enter the men’s realm. I’m happy to report it didn’t work for me, and so I was able to enjoy the splendour within!
Our next stop was the nursery designed for the Marquess’s four children. Here the theme is myths, fables, and nursery rhymes, and this was amongst my favourite rooms in the house. See if you can recognise some of the tales in the pictures below, they’re certainly still well-known today! I also loved the depiction of three of the great sources of children’s stories on the fireplace; Aesop, Scheherazade, and Geoffrey Chaucer. It also shows just how well-learned both the Marquess and Burges were, drawing on a range of different cultural sources.
It became pretty obvious as we continued the tour that each room had a central theme, and the lengths taken to achieve those themes was just amazing. Everything, and I mean everything, was carefully planned and crafted to bring the places to life. Some of my favourite rooms included the Grand Banqueting Hall, depicting the castle itself in earlier times; the Marquess’s bedroom, containing extensive religious iconography; the library, with its focus on worldly knowledge; and the Arab Room. Unfortunately, access into the Arab Room is limited to protect its interior, but you can get the full experience yourself by clicking here. Don’t forget to look up, and prepare to be amazed!
The end of the tour finds you in a small room just behind the library. Here you learn that, sadly, Burges died before the interior of the castle could be completed. As charming as this room is, it clashes horribly with the rest of the house, and you are left wondering just exactly what it could have been. In fact, there are monkeys carved into the doorway that leads from the room into the library, the beginning of work that was never finished. With the end of the tour, I took a moment to back-track for another look at the Arab Room, and a more intensive inspection of the library, before meeting my parents back outside on the castle grounds.
Like most of the castles we’ve met before, it’s not surprisingly to learn that Cardiff Castle was built in the late 11th century, and commissioned by either our good friend William the Conqueror or one of his barons, Robert Fitzhamon. The wooden structure was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century, and it’s the shell of that building that we see today. The castle has enjoyed a fairly colourful history, repeatedly involved in the conflicts between the Anglo-Normans and the Welsh throughout the 12th century, notably stormed in 1404 during the revolt of Owain Glyndwr, and changing hands multiple times during the English Civil War.
Today, you can climb the keep, and that’s what I did next. It’s not incredibly tall, but it does give you pretty cool views over the city. I’m glad it was such a lovely day in Cardiff- I could see really, really far! After a little hiccough on the way back down- I’m very scared of heights and got a little frightened!- I made it back to the rest of the team and decided to check out the features of the castle’s more modern history.
During World War Two, air raid shelters were built into the castle walls. Entrances were modified to allow a large number of people to get in quickly, and could provide protection for up to 1,800 people! Unsurprisingly, the shelters quickly became more than just a place to wait for the bombing to stop; dormitories with bunks, toilets, first aid posts, and even kitchens were built within the walls. Today, parts of the wall’s interior are set up to represent this time period… minus several hundred other people crowding inside. When you walk through there are the sounds of planes and bombs playing through the speakers. It’s not hard to imagine how terrifying it must have been waiting in the walls during war time! Given that the time in the shelter of the walls would have been such a meaningful collective memory for the people of Cardiff, I think that it’s really nice that the Fourth Marquess bequeathed the castle to the people of Cardiff when he died in 1947.
If I was a little bit better organised with my time, I would have spent longer at Cardiff Castle. Next time I think I’ll take a Clock Tower Tour to see the summer smoking room, but there’s actually a whole bunch of other tours offered by the castle. I also skipped out on the joint Regimental Museum of the 1st the Queen’s Dragoon Guards and the Royal Welsh, as well as the specialised Firing Line: Cardiff Castle Museum of the Welsh Soldier. If you want to make a full day of the castle, Bute Park to the north and west of the castle were once castle grounds, but were eventually sold to the city, and are open to visitors today. I managed a little walk through it on a different day, and it’s certainly very pretty!
I enjoyed my beautiful day spent at Cardiff Castle, and I will continue to be amazed at the Gothic Revival interior for years to come! It certainly takes your breath away and transports you to a world of fantasy the moment you step into the doors. This castle should be on your list if you’re heading off to Wales, whether it’s history or architecture that you’re seeking!