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Wednesday, August 8th:

Good morning. It’s about 9:20 in the morning and we are on the road from Llandudno to Llyswen, which is in the Brecon Beacons as you head for the south of Wales. The Brecon Beacons is home to the most recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease, but it’s also home to Llangoed Hall, our most luxe hotel of this fabulous trip. I’ll keep that in mind as we drive on a road that’s about the width of a small alley.

I’ve learned to keep my head in the map book at times when I get scared of the size of the road, the curves of the road, the heighth of the road, and how fast my husband is driving; I’ve been doing that a lot today.

But I kept my eyes on the road at a good time as we just saw Dolwyddelan Castle, which sites on the top of a little hill just by the side of the road.

It’s really just a square with a little turret on the top, but it’s actually in my Inside Wales guidebook and is said to be the birthplace of Llwelyn the Great. The guidebook went on to say, however, that he was born elsewhere in the area and that he built the castle in the early 1400’s. Unfortunately, as I learned later, the guidebook was wrong as Llywelyn died in 1240. Apparently the castle was actually built between 1210 and 1240. If you can’t trust your guidebook, what can you trust?

Had we known it was right off the road we might have stopped for a visit of this isolated little castle set amongst the sheep.

As we’ve been driving through this part of Wales, it occurs to me it must be really fun to play hangman here. Certainly “L” would the first choice of any letter you’d pick. You would probably be able to make a double “L” (“Ll”) a single choice.

My husband has done a terrific job driving today because the first two and three quarters hours of this ride were very scary, and I’ve not been the best passenger. The road seems to have straightened out a bit and the rain eased off; I hope it’s not as narrow or curvy or mountainous for the rest of our journey so I’ll be able to keep my eyes open for the rest of the way.

It seems that over here in Wales, the sheep and the cattle graze together more or less. It makes me wonder why all those westerns force the cattleman against the sheep owners were such a big deal. Is it something about the land and/or the soil that makes it different?

Our original plan was to drive to Llyswen, check into the hotel, then drive to Caerphilly Castle, then drive back to Llyswen for the evening. However, after we passed the entrance on the wrong side of the road, we decided to continue on. The rain did too, and the next two hours were about the most frightening I’ve ever spent on the road. The rain was so hard I couldn’t see the road in front of me, the roads seemed narrower and curvier and filled with more hills than ever, and I was a mess, begging my husband to turn back because I was unsure of how far our destination was, and how much more harrowing it would be. In a look only husbands can give wives, he told me that would be impossible, and I had my eyes closed half the time, alternating between being a back-seat driver and sucking in the left side of my body in an effort to pull the car from the edge of the road through a combination of sheer power of will and utter stupidity. Had the situation been reversed, I probably would have just driven us off a cliff to shut me up.

After it was all done, I realized how incredibly lucky it is that I am not only married to a superb driver, but a man of almost limitless patience. He’s a keeper. Thankfully, it appears the rain has ended.

Caerphilly Castle was built by Gilbert deClare, Lord of Glamorgan, beginning in 1268 and completed in 1326. It is one of the earliest example of the concentric walls within walls principle of defense. The castle and its extensive flooded water defenses covered over 30 acres. Caerphilly is the largest castle in Wales and one of the biggest in Britain. The castle was not completed in deClare’s lifetime, but it was eventually finished.

Caerphilly Castle was allowed to slowly decay, as occurred with the castles we saw earlier in the north of Wales, but unlike those castles, this was not a royal castle. And yet, it was hugely ambitious.

During the 1250’s and 1260’s, a bitter and protracted dispute between King Henry III and his barons gave Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, a local Welsh prince, the chance to expand his own territories within Wales. The dispute was eventually settled not fully resolved, and left important questions of land ownership open regarding the Glamorgan uplands between deClare and Llywelyn. deClare began to build the castle to maintain his hold over the region.

This picture shows the immensity of the castle.
Compare the people passing through the entrance with the size of the structure.

Remember that this isn’t even the highest tower at the castle;
also remember that the entrance is not at the bottom of the building.

Caerphilly was at the forefront of military technology of the day. It was the first deliberately planned concentric castle with the new walls within walls defensive system and was additionally surrounded by lakes to make a forced approach doubly difficult. Between the outer entrance and the inner part of the castle are three drawbridges, six portcullises and five sets of double doors. Between ages 75 and 140 a.d., the Romans ruled here in a fort fairly close to the current castle. Between 500 and 1,000 Romans were quartered in the fort. After they left in the 400’s, princedoms in Wales grew to replace the Romans; the Welsh were Christian at this time.

Following the Norman invasion, powerful Norman barons entrenched themselves along the Welsh border and began to press westward to include this area, although they were not initially successful.

It was more than 200 years after the Norman invasion of England that Gilbert started to begin building Caerphilly Castle in 1268. Two years later, Llywelyn attacked the castle and partially burned it. Llywelyn and Henry came to an agreement and the Welsh left the castle under a truce. Work on the castle continued, however, and deClare was able to sneak back in to the castle, which was supposedly then held by two neutral commissioners. Although deClare had broken the truce and was once again in possession of the castle, Llywelyn never again attacked.

The double ringed defensive system employed at Caerphilly was later utilized by Edward I in the castles of north Wales.

By the time Caerphilly had been built, the feudal levy of men who fought for their lord in return for land had been replaced by a paid professional army. A duke was paid 66 pence a day, knights 10 pence a day, and a Welsh foot soldier 1 pence a day. During a siege, the advancing army would either try to blockade, use a trebuchet or perhaps mine underneath the castle, but because of Caerphilly’s water defenses, this was not possible. Trebuchets were likely used, but were not particularly aimworthy. They did find stone missiles found in vrious parts of the castle that would have been fired by a trebuchet, perhaps in a later seige of 1326-27. After that seige, Caerphilly never again took an active role in Welsh affairs.

The castle did not play a part in the English Civil War and so did not suffer at that time. However, its water defenses had been eliminated by then and Caerphilly basically languished as a picturesque and romantic site in the 18th century. It was restored in more recent years, although the famous leaning tower of Caerphilly, which extends 10 degrees out of the vertical and leans more than Pisa, has been left as is. What caused the tower to lean is unknown, although the marshy ground on which the castle was built is a likely cause.

The third Marquis of Butte inherited the castle in 1866 and he began a restoration program and re-roofed the Great Hall, commissioned a thorough architectural survey, and began to buy up property surrounding the castle.

The fourth Marquis of Butte continued the restoration; most of what you see today is as a result of his efforts in the 1930’s. In 1950 the castle was given to the State and in 1958, the lakes were restored.

The property is immense; tourneys were surely held here. They had a sluice gate to regulate the water level, and, across the moat from us, we can see a what I think must be a trebuchet (this is a “jump” link to a NOVA/PBS site). Yes – how exciting – it is a trebuchet, and in addition, they also have displayed a periet, which is a man-powered catapult, and mangonel, a torsion-powered catapult, and a bolista, man-powered sling catapult. The periet and the trebuchet were entirely medieval war inventions; the other two were used earlier.

It’s difficult to get a fix on the lay-out of the castle because of its size, although I have verified that it is double-moated. And, it can be deceptive in terms of height as well; when you are standing on the outer layers you do not realize how much further down the walls go so you can’t get a fix on its real height.

When you can get a good look, it appears to be close to 150 feet tall and the main hall is taller and wider than any of the other castles we have seen here in Wales.

You can also see the double-moating in the two photos directly below.



We caught the tail end of a demonstration with some visitors and castle staff. A medieval helmet was set upon the head of a young man, who could barely walk because of its weight. We also learned that an archer could fire 12 arrows a minute about 180 yards into the distance. (If using a longbow, he could shoot close to 1,000 feet, but longbows required a lot of strength and practice to control.) What was also nice about this demonstration was that the hall it was given in had a period feel to it; it wasn’t simply a ruin as the “rooms” in the other castles have been.

After our visit to the castle, we wandered across the street and had a bite to eat before heading back on that awful road to Llyswen. The rain had not returned for most of the ride, and when we did get some rain, it was not nearly as hard as earlier in the day. We arrived at Llangoed Hall, which is our hotel, in one piece, and had a marvelous experience when we got out of the car.

Rather than going inside, we were greeted outside by a gentleman who said, “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Gold. May I take you to your room?” We did not sign in at a desk; we have no idea how they even knew who we were. We were whisked up to our magnificent room two floors up. There is original artwork all over the house, which was bought and restored by Sir Bernard Ashley, the co-founder of Laura Ashley.

The manor house that was originally built in 1632. Everything is antique. It’s been restored in the classic Jacobian style and we saw the original coat of arms over the south porch when we went exploring shortly thereafter. The family who originally built the property lost it in the regency era in a gambling bout. The restaurant has a Michelin star and is the only restaurant to have gotten that award in all of Wales. This hotel makes even the extravagance of Bodysgallen Hall look like a Howard Johnson’s. There is even a helipad on the premises.

We have just toured the garden, entryway, and house. It’s amazing. We even went through the maze they have in the gardens, and saw a door on the side of the house that has the original crest, which is visable on both pictures below. I don’t read Latin, but my guess is that the first two words of the motto “Gloriam * deo * cano” translate roughly into glory and god.

The rooms throughout the Hall are decorated to the hilt and filled with antiques, although the linens and fabrics in the rooms are pure Laura Ashley. The photos below were taken in our room.

Below are photos from some of the Hall’s common rooms

I couldn’t help myself from looking at the wine list they had in one of the sitting rooms – the most expensive bottle is £600, which is about $1,000. My husband borrowed a jacket and tie from the hotel and we had marvelous food and wine. Gosh – we only have one more full day and night.

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