Glamorgan 4 - Castell Coch/another fairy tale castle/Carcassone and Aigue mortes all rolled into one

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March 6th 2017
Published: March 7th 2017
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We were yet again reminded why we really were missing Suzy as we spent a night in a travel lodge. It was difficult to book, the room was cold until we found the heater switches, we were stuck in single beds. Not the fantastic Hypnos beds they advertise but older ones not so comfy. The carpets were functional but faded, the desk old fashioned and the shower cubicle utilitarian. There was even a door way boarded up between our room and the next . Obviously the room had been a joint family one in some dim and distant time and now had wallpaper covering it and the locks punched out.

Our evening meal was at the Toby Carvery next door. Busy and functional was about all we could say. Not the best carvery meal we have had nor was it the worse. Just average was the best description. The room was quiet to be fair and we did sleep reasonably well.

Breakfast was at 8 in the Toby Carvery . £5 for a full English which Glenn ate . I chose two slices of toast and a cup of coffee for about £4. Poor value compared to the £5 all you can eat breakfast. It was possible if you wanted to eat earlier to order a muffin, a yoghurt, an orange drink and a biscuit for £4.99 and this would be delivered to your room. This explains why there was no cooked breakfast before 8. We missed Suzy. Cooking our own breakfast in our own kitchen. Making tea or coffee when we wanted to. Sleeping in our own bed.

It was still throwing it down cats and dogs as we loaded the car up for the short drive to Castell Coch. The third home of the Butes. How many houses can one man want? He described it as a summer house for occaisional use. It sounded a bit like the summer house in British gardens used now and again when the weather deemed fit enough.

We saw the castle with its turrets first as it peeked out from the hillside. Hidden in the trees it was the perfect place for a castle. The pepperpot towers roof reminded me of Carcassonne with hint of Aigues Mortes. I guess the views from the castle are very different today than they were when William Burges designed the building. None of the factory units were there nor was there any traffic noise from the busy road below. There would have just been the sound of birdsong and occaisional voices. In the woods grew wild and exotic flowers. All protected in this site of Scientific Interest.

We drove up to the car park and parked up. There was not a soul there apart from us. We began to wonder if we had chosen the right opening time. One site that we looked at told us opening time was 10. Another quoted 9.30. We got there at 9.30 and the place was empty.

Walking up in the rain we found ourselves in front of a stark grey building with slate roof. A fantasy that would not have looked out of place in Bavaria or on the Romantic Road. There was one distinct advantage of being there this early in that there was not a soul in sight. We had the place to ourselves . Free to wander at will, stopping when we chose to and moving in when we felt like. The opportunity always there to take photographs without having to stop and wait for someone to move on. It was perfect.

How would Castell Coch cared for by CADW fare compared to the much bigger, sprawling Cardiff Castle. We were soon to find out. Entrance was free and we entered over a short drawbridge into a courtyard. All of which work still. There were even murder holes built into the fabric of the building in order to enhance its medieval feel. After entering we came into a circular space with stone stairways leading to the rooms above and a walkway round the entire circumference. Red guard rails prevented anyone falling off and all the window openings had medieval style shutters painted in the same red colour. We were reminded of Rothenburg with its walkways above the town and of the Italian castle of Aosta with its inner courtyard, stairways to rooms above and a walkway around its entire circular middle. It was strange how it invoked thoughts of castles around Europe and beyond. No wonder though as we started to read about the history of the castle and the fact that Burges was a fan of a certain architect who worked on Carcasonne.

Styled in the 19th century Gothic revival style the castle sits upon the site of an earlier castle built by the Normans sometime after 1081. Built to protect the newly conquered town of Cardiff and to control the routeway along the River Taff. Over time the castle was abandoned and the motte used by Gilbert de Clare for the basis for his new stone castle which he built between the years of 1267 and 1277. As always the welsh rebelled against the foreign invader and destroyed his castle . The ruins were acquired in 1760 by the third Earl of Bute , John Stuart through a rather lucrative marriage that brought him estates in South Wales.

In 1838 John Crichton Stuart the 3rd Marquess of Bute inherited this castle and being one of Britain's wealthiest men, with interests in both Gothic architecture and history he set to employing William Burges to reconstruct yet another of his many homes. The castle exterior was rebuilt between 1875 and 1879 . Burges then planned to turn to the interior but sadly died in 1881 and the work of settling the inside features was left to his team. Perhaps this was why the inside did not have the grandeur of its bigger bully boy cousin Cardiff. The work was finished in 1891.

We climbed the first steps and entered the Gothic world above. As we looked over the balconies we could imagine serving staff instead of wearing black and white uniforms so well known in the Victorian period would be clad as serving wenches . I wouldnt be surprised if the Butes did not feast off pewter plates and chargers.

From the first room we heard not minstrels but the sound of a vacuum cleaner. The young lady inside apologised as she swept her Hoover over the red carpet that hid the tiles below. That reminded us of Cordoba where the cleaners with brushes kept the floor clean as they worked amidst miriads of visitors and pilgrims. An everyday scene that felt rather odd in a way but also strangely welcoming.

Our first room was the Banqueting Hall which was 20 x 30 foot in size with an impressive 35 foot ceiling. It did not have the grandeur of Cardiff and it could be said it felt austere in its decoration. The walls highly painted with medieval scenes. It was a room without the over the top decoration that we had seen in Cardiff. In fact in some ways it was so understated that it lacked the wow factor. We did not feel that we said quite so many good things about it. It lacked the gilding and the ornate wood. Most of the paintings were stencilled and some had deteriorated over time being exposed to damp. Peeling walls made it more of a human building I guess. What it did have was an array of furniture that were original to the house. Most of Cardiff furniture had been lost over time. Although attempts had successfully be made to locate the furniture and buy it back for Cardiff here at Castell Coch it either never left the building or CADW were more fortunate to find out its location and return it to the Banqueting Hall and other rooms.

The chimney breast was typical of many seen in French chateaux containing statues . Now these were very impressive and rivalled the bully boy up the road. Three statues possibly of King David or Lucius founder of the ancient diocese of Cardiff adorned the breast. Latin texts painted beneath the statuary giving it an air of antiquity. From this room we entered the Drawing Room. This was a fantastic space, octagonal with windows viewing 360 degrees. It occupies the first and second floors of the Keep . Stone ribs support the vaulted ceiling and it is said they copy the work of Viollet Le Duc who remodelled Carcasonne. No wonder we kept seeing similarities with other castles. The upper half of the drawing room is divided by a minstrels gallery. Again filled with original furniture of red painted cane it looked quite the part of a medieval castle room. The walls are covered with nature and wild flowers. Every inch was filled with panels and each one held a flower, 58 of them showing Bluebells, primroses and daffodils all the flowers of Spring, followed by daisies, roses and the blooms of summer. Each season reflected in a floral confection. They were taken from Aesops fables. Above the flowers were animals , monkeys frolicking amongst the jungle bamboos, birds of every shape and size. Now this returned us to the wow factor. How beautiful in a dignified sort of way. Pastel greens and pale duck egg blue it was not a riot of colour but nevertheless we stood in awe of the skill of the painters who executed the work so brilliantly.

Above the fireplace a chimney breast featuring the Three Fates. A trio of Greek goddesses who were spinning, measuring and cutting the thread of life. The ceiling left us stunned with its simple beauty. Sky blue it was carved with butterflies. It peaked with a golden sunburst surrounded by plumed birds who were flying up to the heavens. the thread of life. The ceiling's vaulting is carved with butterflies, reaching up to a golden sunburst at the apex of the room, while plumed birds fly up into a starry sky in the intervening sections. Now this did make us say wow. We were in awe of the workmanship and the sheer audacity of the project. Goes to show what money can buy you.

Reluctantly we walked out of this room into Lord Butes bedroom . Lord Bute's Bedroom was sited just above the winch room and is relatively small and simple. We looked into the winch room , it felt draughty and cold. The winch man sitting in front of his tiny firegrate must have shivered in the middle of winter. The room has an internal balcony which overlooks the courtyard where Lord Bute could dream of his medieval make believe world and still keep an eye on his servants and staff. Inside the room was yet another ornately carved fireplace and wash stands and dressing tables all designed in a mock Gothic style.

Lady Butes bedroom . Yet another romantic version of the past. The Middle Ages through the eyes of the Victorians brought to life. This room was not Burges work but that of his successors and in comparison to other rooms within the castle, it is less dramatic with softer colours, less ornamentation and more in keeping with the later Aesthetic Movement which had slowly taking over from high Victorian Gothic. A simpler room and one that made us both say "Well they might have spent their money on ornamentation but the room seems pretty frugal". In the centre a huge bed with glass bed knobs and brass. Said to resemble a scene from the Arabian Nights the walls were covered in stencilled geometric patterns some of the plasterwork again coming away from the walls. A washbasin and jug sat upon a mock medieval dressing table with models of castles to each corner. Places to hide the soap and the things Lady Bute needed to keep herself clean. They housed cisterns for hot and cold water. An ingenious way to hide a necessity who did not necessarily look in keeping with the theme of the room. The room is circular with windows again with 360 degree views across the valley below. Love is the theme of the room with carved monkeys , nesting birds and pomegranites decorating the walls . All taken from medieval manuscripts . Above the fireplace is a winged statue of Psyche the goddess of the soul who carries the heart shaped shield with the families coat of arms. The bedroom does have a bit of a Moorish theme which is keeping with the fabulous Arab room in Cardiff Castle.

The top floor housed the stained glass that originally formed the windows of the private chapel. Long gone the chapel but the windows were rescued fairly recently from an auction and returned to the castle .

Our last visit was to the "dungeon" . It looked like a cold, dark and airless dungeon but might equally have been a storeroom or an ice house.

As we had circumnavigated the castle it was now time to head home. Of course it was pouring down with the rain, so heavy the windscreen wipers failed to clear it. Sally Sat Nag decided to take us the scenic route via the Valleys. We headed a mile up the road for Merither Tidfil as she liked to call Merthyr Tydfil before we had the opportunity to turn round and follow the map for the M4. With spray rising from the traffic on the motorway she squeeled to us "turn around where possible". Time and time again she tried her hardest to get us to head back to the Valleys and travel north from there despite the fact that the quickest route was via the M4, the M42 and the M1. We ignored her pleading with us to go to Gloucester. We carried on up the M4 as she continued to try to get us to use A roads. Even when we got on the M42 she carried on with her protestations to "Leave the motorway and take the third turning at the roundabout". She has to go and go she did as when we got home we managed to get a new TomTom Sally version 2 through E-buyer £60 cheaper than one we could have purchased last week in Bodmin.

We are home and life is again back to normal. My birthday forgotten, our anniversary a thing of the past and now just thoughts of getting Suzy on the road.

We had a good week despite the weather . We ate well, we saw what we wanted to see. To sum it up I guess this sounds about right.

"Wherever you are , you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars that you see" With the rain pouring down and the sound of the sea and seagulls we could relate to this .


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