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[Photo: Welsh Historic Monuments]
Caerphilly Castle's trademark is its centuries-old leaning tower.

By ERIC FREEDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001


Remnants of the Middle Ages, Caerphilly, Cardiff and Castell Coch offer a peek into life and death within castle walls. The man who restored them added another historical dimension - Victoriana.

CAERPHILLY, Wales -- The knights are long gone, the siege long lifted and the battles between Norman invaders and Welsh nationalists long over, yet the towers -- both those crumbling and those restored -- of Caerphilly Castle stand guardian still.

It is easy to imagine the realities of life here amid war, not the romanticized imagery of the musical Camelot, but the charging of mounted troopers -- sweating, fearful, brave -- the longbows drawn taut at the oncoming enemies. We can see the narrow arrow slits through which the bowmen shoot, and the "murder holes" through which the defenders pour boiling water and powdered quicklime upon the attackers.

Although parkland now surrounds Wales' largest castle, and there is a village across the street, the moat and remnants of a small lake are evidence of the 30 acres of marsh and lakes that formed another obstacle to the artillery and horses of the enemies.

And fullsize models of massive wooden instruments of war, including a tension-powered catapult and a ballista that hurled 5-foot darts to skewer attackers, let visitors envision the castle's defensive strategies.

Three drawbridges and six portcullises -- heavy sliding grills that drop from above to block entryways -- provided additional protection.

Like several other medieval castles in this part of southeastern Wales, including Castell Coch and Cardiff Castle, Caerphilly was built at the site of an ancient fort the Roman invaders had used to secure their territorial aspirations, the maintenance of an empire. A tree-covered hillock beyond Caerphilly's walls and moat marks the spot of that first fort.

Construction of Caerphilly began in 1268, two centuries after William the Conqueror brought his Norman lords and barons to the British Isles. Earl Gilbert de Clare, the 25-year-old Norman lord of Glamorgan, sought to secure his own territorial dreams and to defeat his rival, Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd of Wales.

De Clare chose a strategically innovative design of concentric circles to form a walled stronghold. It worked. Llywelyn attacked in 1270 and again the next year but failed to seize Caerphilly.

The castle was enlarged and not completed until 1326 -- more than 40 years after Edward I defeated Llywelyn and completed the subjugation of Wales. By then the castle's military necessity had faded, so it served primarily as a fortified home.

By the early 16th century, Caerphilly had deteriorated. It was "rediscovered" in the 1800s and restored by the wealthy and history-minded owner, John Crichton Stuart, the third marquis of Bute. The family donated Caerphilly Castle to the government in 1950, and restoration continued.

Today's visitors wander through the towers, climb upon the walls and battlements, walk through the inner courtyard where inch-high daisies pockmark the grass, envision feasts in the Great Hall. The walls are of multicolor stone, with patches of white and gray lichen. Wild ducks and geese live on the nearby water, like those that fed the nobles and soldiers centuries ago.

Not everything is restored. For example Caerphilly's most identifiable feature, its "leaning tower" next to the East Gatehouse remains 10 degrees out of vertical, most likely because of shifting of the ground rather than war damage. Yellow wildflowers bloom on partly crumbled walls. Nor has the roof been rebuilt over the lords' private apartments, their huge fireplace chimney exposed.

Outside the walls swirls modern life, including the successor to the medieval village De Clare knew. Special events, such as demonstrations of medieval warfare, take place in the castle.

Another restoration project
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[Photo: Welsh Historic Monuments]
The restoration of Castell Coch includes lavish interior decorations.

Castell Coch (the Red Castle) stands a short drive away, surrounded by a beech wood on the outskirts of the village of Tongwynlais in the Taff River Valley.

Bute rebuilt this one, too, creating from the ruins what appears more fairy tale than fortress. Its reddish stone walls, round towers and turrets fit romanticized Victorian images of the Middle Ages rather than medieval realism.

Bute, who had inherited his family's vast holdings of land, coal mines and docks in Scotland, England and Wales when he was just 6 months old, had no interest in business. Instead, he could afford to indulge his fascination with history, mysticism and psychology, master a reported 20 languages and travel extensively.

Castell Coch is one product of his imagination. Working with the architect William Burges -- who also designed the restorations of Caerphilly and Cardiff castles -- Bute created what looks like the destroyed 13th century castle only on the outside.

Inside is a different story, with each room ornately redesigned to reflect Bute's interests. Although there are arrow slits in the walls, murder holes in the floor and a working drawbridge and portcullis, the decorations include extensive stenciling, stained glass and rich carvings.

The Banqueting Hall, for example, is baronial in style with its stenciled red walls and scenes of Christian martyrdom. Lady Bute's bedroom is done -- perhaps overdone -- in Gothic and Moorish styles, with a domed ceiling, paintings of monkeys and squirrels, and a washstand boasting two medieval-looking towers, one for hot water and the other for cold.

Yet Bute rarely used the restored castle, apparently having lost interest once the work was done. His descendants donated it to the public as a historic monument.

After touring inside, visitors can cross the small cobbled courtyard and the bridge, then follow a trail through the woods around the castle and its dry moat.

Capital castle

[Photo: Welsh Historic Monuments]
Cardiff Castle blends Roman and Norman exteriors with such incongruities as an ornate clock tower.
Bute's most ambitious restoration was the 30-year project at Cardiff Castle, in the center of the Welsh capital. This, too, was a Norman castle -- started in the late 11th century by Robert Fitzhamon, lord of Gloucester -- on the site of a Roman fort.

Strategically situated between the mountains and the sea, it began with a keep, or strong-point, on a 40-foot-high mound of earth, surrounded by a wooden stockade and moat. As centuries passed, successive owners reconstructed the defenses with imposing towers, walls of heavy stone, housing for knights and luxurious accommodations for the lords.

By 1321, Cardiff Castle was owned by the Despenser family, allies of King Edward II. That year, powerful lords opposed to the king captured the castle. Ownership continued to change as centuries passed, until the Butes acquired it in 1776. It is now owned by the city of Cardiff and is often used for social functions.

What visitors see blends old and relatively new, Roman and Norman in exterior -- with such incongruities as an ornate clock tower on the wall -- and Victorian inside. Like Castell Coch's rooms, those of Cardiff Castle mirror Bute's eclectic and intellectual interests.

In the main building, figures ranging from Aladdin and Robin Hood to Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella are painted on the nursery walls, while the Arab Room is a model of a Middle Eastern harem, complete with screened windows. The Banqueting Hall with its timber-vaulted ceiling and gold fleur de lis on a blue background reflects Norman history, while stained glass windows in a tower bedroom depict the seven churches of Asia mentioned in Revelations.

The mosaic floor of the roof garden copies the design of a Roman bath from Pompeii, yet the garden walls include inscriptions in Hebrew -- one of Bute's many languages and evidence of his interest in Judaism.

And the library where he studied depicts Greek philosophers, English poets and inscriptions in Hebrew, Aramaic and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Elsewhere on the eight acres of grounds is the heavily fortified Norman keep that protected the lords of the castle and their families. It boasts inpenetrable walls, battlements, small rooms and narrow stairways, and it served double duty by holding prisoners.

Just as styles blend, contrast and clash inside Cardiff Castle, so do sensations outside. With no enemies to keep out, lilypads don't seem inappropriate in the moat, and Queen Anne's lace and other wildflowers grow upon the banks. Peacocks -- oblivious to strolling tourists and snapping cameras -- strut across the center green, past remnants of a stone wall.

Eric Freedman teaches journalism at Michigan State University, where he headed the 1999 Reporting in the British Isles Program.

If you go

Cardiff Castle, in the Welsh capital, is within walking distance of major hotels and the train and bus stations. Castell Coch and Caerphilly Castle can be reached from Cardiff by municipal buses, although Castell Coch is a half-mile uphill walk from the stop in Tongwynlais.

There is an admission fee for all three castles. For a small extra fee, you can have a guided tour of the main building at Cardiff Castle and rent tape-recorded tours of Caerphilly and Castell Coch. The castles are closed on New Year's Day and Christmas.

For more information, contact Cardiff Marketing Ltd., Oliver House, 1617 High St., Cardiff CF1 2AX, Wales.

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