As the car drives up the steep hillside and I glimpse the rounded turrets of a castle through the trees, I feel as if I’m entering a fairy-tale world. I wonder if Walt Disney used this setting as a model for his films. But the knights and handsome princes who lived here were not those made famous in such tales as Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. This castle was once the stronghold of Welsh lords.
Originally built of rough sandstone from which it took its name, “Castell Coch” (Red Castle), was a stronghold for the family of Gilbert de Clare, fabled in Welsh history who once also occupied Caerphilly Castle. The castle is located on a rocky bluff overlooking the Taff Valley north of Cardiff. It was rebuilt in 1871 by renowned architect William Burges and John Crichton-Stuart, third marquis of Bute, who were responsible for also rebuilding Cardiff Castle. The building, known as a ‘romantic folly’, is part of the complex history of Wales. The earliest structure here was likely a wooden Norman fortress later replaced by the stone edifice built for the de Clare family. It fell into disuse after the 14th century Welsh rebellion.
The castle, situated on a rocky ledge, was protected by a deep dry moat. Before entering, I walk around the outside where the rough medieval stonework is still visible, merging with the 19th century masonry. The massive Kitchen Tower with its three meter-thick walls is one of the castle’s most impressive parts. As I wander down the path I can spot the medieval arrow slots, reminders of the original castle’s tumultuous past.
Castel Coch has a definite medieval appearance including a drawbridge, and as I enter the sumptuous interior it is like a dream-world, combining Gothic fantasy with childhood memories of fairy tales. It features three conical-roofed towers: the Keep Tower, the Well Tower and the Kitchen Tower which include apartments and other rooms that are examples of the high Victorian Gothic style popular in 19th century Britain. Some of the large stone-vaulted rooms either survived medieval times or were rebuilt to resemble the original. The tower rooms feature stairway access to the courtyard allowing servants to enter rooms such as the Banqueting Hall without using the main doorways. The highly decorated courtyard looks like a set from a Wagner opera.
The interior rooms have some of the original furnishings giving it an 1891 appearance. The Marquis of Bute was reputedly the richest man in the world at the time, and the opulence of the decor and design reflects his lavish lifestyle. There’s so much to see it’s hard to take it all in or to imagine living in such a place. The ornate Drawing Room illustrates a decor of nature themes with butterflies and birds and includes a spectacular fireplace featuring the Three Follies spinning, measuring and cutting the thread of life. Perhaps the castle itself was the Marquis Bute’s folly because in the years after its completion, the Marquis’s family used it only as a kind of ‘retreat’ although Lady Bute and her daughter lived there for a time after the Marquis’s death in 1900.
In the Windless Room, Burges assembled an apparatus that functioned as a drawbridge and included “murder holes” where boiling oil could be poured out over the castle’s besiegers. In contrast to this rather sinister theme, the bedroom of Lady Bute is decorated with symbols of love: pomegranates and nesting birds. The oriental influence of Burges’s work can be seen in the Moorish-style gold, mirrored dome that reflects his Arab Room in the Cardiff Castle .
Burges died in 1881 and the work continued for another ten years. Today Castell Coch is cared for by CADW, (Kadu), the historic environment service of the Welsh government.
Written by and photos by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com