A few weeks ago I went to Pembrokeshire (Wales) for the day, visiting St David’s Cathedral and two Pembrokeshire beaches. On the way back, driving down the M4 motorway near Cardiff, I could see a castle hidden away in the hillside. Remembering this last week, I did a Google search for “castles visible from the M4”. After finding the name of the castle (Castell Coch – The Red Castle), I decided it would be a great way to spend my August Bank Holiday weekend visiting friends in Cardiff and taking a look at Castell Coch.
Waking up to some glorious sunshine on Sunday, overlooking Cardiff Bay and finishing reading Chocolat, it was soon time to drive to the castle.
A Little History
A castle has existed on the site of Castell Coch since the eleventh century, though the original castle fell out of use due to damage and disrepair during the fourteenth century.
In 1871, John Crichton-Stuart, third marquess of Bute commissioned excavations of the site of Castell Coch. The third marquess of Bute inherited a vast fortune from his father the second marquess of Bute, famed as being the creator of modern Cardiff after building Cardiff Docks. With an interest in antiquarianism, the third marquess purchased and preserved a number of sites of great historical importance in Scotland – the ancestral home of the Stuart family – such as Rothesay Castle. After meeting architect and designer William Burges in 1865, the third marquess hired Burges to rebuild Cardiff Castle, which had already been expanded by the first and later second marquess in a fashion the third marquess despised. During the rebuild of Cardiff Castle, the third marquess instructed Burges to report on the history and original appearance of Castell Coch, and to recommend how the castle might be restored.
In 1875 following Burges’ submission of plans for the rebuild of Castell Coch, construction commenced and lasted until 1891 with the completion of the decoration and furnishing. During the construction, in 1881 Burges died suddenly with only the decoration and furnishing of the banqueting hall complete. Despite the death of William Burges, construction of the castle continued under a team led by J. S Chapple and William Frame.
In 1900, nine years after the castle’s completion the third marquess of Bute died. After the marquess’ death, his widow and daughter resided at Castell Coch for a short period, during which time an inventory of the castle was completed. This inventory has allowed many of the original contents and furnishings to remain in place.
Throughout much of the twentieth century the castle remained predominantly unoccupied. During the Second World War the castle was used for military purposes and five years after the end of the war, in 1950 Castle Coch was put into state care by the fifth marquess of Bute, before his death in 1956.
Nowadays Castell Coch is cared for by Cadw, the historical environment service of the Welsh Assembly and is open to the public daily, with regular special events and weddings held within the castle courtyard.
After parking the car and walking towards the castle entrance, you will be greeted by the sight of the front elevation of the fantasy-esque castle, complete with drawbridge.
Walking through the gatehouse, you arrive in a courtyard with doors leading to the towers, shop and tea room. During my visit, a children’s sword fighting event was taking place with children dressed as knights/princesses, hence the lack of a decent courtyard photograph.
Steps to the left just after the entrance lead to the main rooms within the castle, the steps also lead to the gallery – a passageway around the upper level of the courtyard, to the Well Tower housing a number of exhibits and the dungeon on the lower ground floor.
Outside the castle walls, you are able to walk around the castle’s exterior.
Beside the outer wall of the Hall Block, is another set of steps to walk back up to the entrance of the castle.
Within Castell Coch there are several furnished and very decorative rooms, complete with their original furniture and in some cases in their original location.
The Banqueting Hall
The first interior room you will come to is the Banqueting Hall, a vast medieval style dining room. Looking out of the windows, you will see Cardiff in the distance. Much like the dining table at Moseley Old Hall, it is a long table with chairs at each end of the table for the Lord and Lady, and benches for other dining guests. The walls are decorated with colourful murals of St Lucius, an early British King, and his sister St Emerita, along with family portraits.
The Banqueting Hall was the only room to be fully decorated and furnished before William Burges’ death.
Walking to the other end of the Banqueting Hall and through the double door at the end the room, you will arrive in the Drawing Room.
The Drawing Room
The Drawing Room is a much smaller room than the Banqueting Hall, circular in shape. In the centre of the room a table holds a vase of flowers. Behind the table is a large fireplace topped with a sculpture of The Three Fates of Greek Mythology: Clotho presides over birth and spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures it and Atropos cuts it at death. Next to the fireplace are two wooden (and rather uncomfortable looking) sofas.
Above the table is a rather impressive chandelier below a very ornate ceiling, decorated with stars, butterflies and birds.
The walls consist of wooden paneling with flowers at the centre of each panel, and a decorative wall covering of flora and fauna.
Lord Bute’s Bedroom
Walking up some very steep spiral staircases you will arrive on the second floor of the castle, housing the bedrooms. The first bedroom you will see is Lord Bute’s bedroom, next to the Drawing Room Gallery.
The room is quite plainly furnished considering some of the other rooms. The bed, a single bed, is quite an unusual design, like a piece of steampunk architecture, made of copper plated cast iron and held together with elaborate knot work.
After leaving Lord Bute’s bedroom you walk up a second spiral staircase to Lady Bute’s bedroom.
Lady Bute’s Bedroom
Lady Bute’s bedroom, located above the drawing room is a very regal looking room, bright with colour and extravagant looking furniture.
Like the Drawing Room, Lady Bute’s bedroom features an ornate dome, decorated with flora, fauna and animals. Lord Bute did not approve of the monkeys depicted within the dome panels.
Lady Bute’s bedroom has a less ornate chandelier than the drawing room’s chandelier, which appears to be secured by the additional poles to reduce the stress it put upon the domed ceiling by its weight.
The fireplace in Lady Bute’s bedroom features a carving of Psyche, the beloved of Eros, holding a heart-shaped shield of Lord and Lady Bute’s coats of arms.
After looking around Lady Bute’s bedroom, walk down the spiral staircase, out the door in the Banqueting Hall and through the next door along the courtyard gallery, you will enter the kitchen.
The Kitchen is a very plain room considering the bright, colourful and lavishly decorated Banqueting Hall, Drawing Room and bedrooms. The room features a large range cooker, a bench table and an armoire based on an example from Bayeux Cathedral.
After exploring the castle, a path outside leads to a number of walks including a sculpture trail.
- http://cadw.wales.gov.uk/daysout/castell-coch/?lang=en – Official Castell Coch webpage on the CADW website.
- http://www.castlewales.com/coch.html – Castle Coch on the Castle Wales website