Dinefwr

Newton House seen through the trees from Dinefwr Deer Park

Nestled among the trees and woodland of the Carmarthenshire countryside, Dinefwr is a grand estate boasting a medieval castle, a stately home and a 100-acre nature reserve that’s home to a host of wildlife including deer, otters and badgers.

Looking for somewhere to stop on my drive back to Cardiff from Pembrokeshire, I stumbled upon Dinefwr, and as it was almost at the half-way point between the two, I decided it would be the perfect place to stretch my legs and have a spot of lunch.

On arriving at the estate, which is maintained by the National Trust, I parked my car and made my way to the information hut to get a map from the friendly staff. There are a number of walking trails around the estate and I chose a route that would take me up to the castle, then through the nature reserve to Mill Pond and returning via the deer park.

Dinefwr Castle

I set off from the car park over a field and entered the Castle Wood, following the woodland path uphill until I reached the castle (above). Perched high on a hill overlooking the River Tywi, Dinefwr Castle was once the home of Lord Rhys and the princes of Deheubarth, the ancient kingdom of south-west Wales.

Only the outer shell of the castle, which is maintained by Cadw, remains, but you can walk all the way along the ramparts and they offer spectacular views of the Carmarthenshire countryside, the River Tywi and Dinefwr Park (below). The big round tower is still intact, too, and you can climb to the top and walk around it. There isn’t a huge amount to Dinefwr Castle, but what remains is in excellent condition and it’s a lovely place to explore.

View over Dinefwr Park and beyond from the top of Dinefwr Castle

From the castle, I headed back down the hill, cutting through the woodland, and continuing to follow the path over a field until I came to the deer park entrance. I passed through the metal gates into the park and followed the boardwalk through Bog Wood until I came to the picturesque Mill Pond.

Wooden sculpture of a bird of prey in the deer park at Dinefwr

From there, I carried on walking through the deer park, and was surprised and delighted when I saw two young deer sprint past me on the path ahead. I hadn’t expected to see any deer, despite the park’s name, and was thrilled to see not one, but two of these magnificent creatures.

Deer just visible on top of a hill in the Deer Park at Dinefwr

I continued through the deer park, and as I neared the metal gates at the end of the path, I looked to my left where I saw a row of deer relaxing on top of the hill (you can just make out them out in the photo above). Most were lying down, but some were standing around or eating.

It was an incredible experience seeing so many deer so close. I thought the deer would keep themselves hidden, away from the footpaths, and so hadn’t expected to come across any. The only other place I’ve seen deer is in Richmond Park in London, so seeing the deer made my visit to Dinefwr quite special.

Newton House in the grounds of Dinefwr

Feeling elated from my encounters with the deer, I continued on the path towards Newton House (above), the stately home at Dinefwr. The house was closed so I couldn’t look around, but The Billiard Tearoom inside was open, so I stopped there for lunch. The tea room sells a variety of soups, light lunches and sweet treats, and the staff were incredibly warm and welcoming, and made my visit all the nicer. Starving, I wolfed down a steaming bowl of red thai squash soup, followed by a slice of toffee gateau.

View of the inside of Dinefwr Castle from the ramparts

Dinefwr is an exceptional place, full of history, wildlife and beautiful scenery, and having lived in Wales most of my life, I can’t believe it was my first visit. Seeing the deer in the deer park was particularly memorable, and as I was walking around, I was already planning my return visit. I may only have just discovered Dinefwr, but it’s a place I’ll be returning to again and again.

Info

Dinefwr Castle
Free
Open 10am-4pm every day
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/dinefwrcastle

Dinefwr Park
Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, SA19 6RT
Adults £7.60, children £3.80
www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dinefwr

 

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Ceredigion coastal path – Gwbert to Mwnt

The sandy cove of Mwnt in the distance, spied from the Ceredigion coastal path

Earlier this month I was in Pembrokeshire, west Wales, for a wedding. The morning after, feeling a little delicate, I decided I needed a healthy dose of sea air to blow the cobwebs away and so embarked on a seven-mile circular walk from my hotel in Gwbert to Mwnt.

Gwbert is a tiny village perched high on the cliffs overlooking Cardigan Bay. The Ceredigion coastal path (part of the Wales Coast Path, a free to access footpath that runs along the entire Welsh coastline) passes through the village. Having done a spot of research online, I found that if I followed the path to the north, I’d end up in the picturesque sandy cove of Mwnt, just three-and-a-half miles away.

The wild and dramatic Ceredigion coastline from Gwbert

Before I set off, I paid a quick visit to the clifftops at the end of my hotel’s grounds to have a look at the spectacular stretch of coastline I was about to explore (above). Joining the coastal path, I walked firstly uphill along a wide country road, and then followed the signs over a stile through a series of (at times muddy and wet) farmers’ fields.

View of Cardigan Island in the distance from the Ceredigion coastal path

The path through the fields took me right down to the shore where I had good views of nearby Cardigan Island (above), and from here, I followed the jagged, curving pathway along the edge of the coast, through fields and quarries, and along narrow clifftop pathways.

The path was mostly well-trodden, but it was muddy, slippery and perilously close to the cliff edge in parts. The signs warning that clifftops could be deadly did not help reassure me and I was very aware that if I tumbled at certain points, I’d fall straight over the edge of the cliff onto the craggy, forboding rocks below.

Looking down on the sandy cove of Mwnt from the Ceredigion coastal path

After around an hour or so, I finally spied Mwnt’s compact sandy beach in the distance (above). And as I got closer to the cove, the path became increasingly muddy, rocky and slippery, and there was one section where I struggled to keep my footing. But I soon made it down to the beach where I enjoyed the beautiful views over the coastline I’d just walked (below).

View of the Ceredigion coastline from Mwnt

Being November and a little drizzly, the beach was unusually quiet (it’s often heaving on a sunny summer’s day) with only a few other walkers around. I spent a little while at the beach looking out for any signs of seals, pups or dolphins, which frequent the area, and then headed up the hill to the small Church of the Holy Cross (below), which overlooks the cove.

The lonely Church of the Holy Cross in Mwnt

From there, I headed inland up a long, winding, uphill road, where at the top, I turned to the right, and walked back to Gwbert via the roads, passing the tiny village of Ferwig along the way. My return journey wasn’t anywhere near as scenic or as pleasant as the coastal path, but it was a much easier, more sure-footed walk. And some three hours after setting out, I arrived back at my hotel where I collapsed on my bed with a warming cup of tea and some ginger biscuits.

I really enjoyed my walk along this incredibly scenic stretch of the Ceredigion coastal path, it’s a great route and the views over the coastline are breathtaking. It was the first time I’ve deliberately walked a good stretch of the Wales Coast Path, and having completed this walk, I’d like to explore more of it.

Tips

  • Take a map – there’s no phone or internet signal in this part of rural Wales and while the coastal path is well signposted, the road signs are sporadic and there are a number of junctions that aren’t marked.
  • Take plenty of water and snacks – there are no cafés or shops en route.
  • There’s a small toilet at Mwnt that’s open all year-round, but bear in mind these are the only facilities along the walk.
  • Wear waterproof hiking shoes with good grips – the coastal path is muddy and very slippery in parts so good footwear is essential.
  • Be aware that once you join the coastal path at Gwbert there’s no way of turning off it until you get to Mwnt.

Info

Get more information about the Wales Coast Path.

Tintern Abbey

The remains of Tintern Abbey

If you were looking for a picture-perfect spot on which to build an abbey, Tintern, on the banks of the River Wye in Monmouthshire, would tick all the boxes. Beside a bend in the river, Tintern is surrounded by steep hills covered in lush, green forest and is so lovely it’s inspired artists and writers, such as JMW Turner and William Wordsworth.

Since passing my driving test earlier this year and buying a car, I’ve been keen to explore the south Wales countryside, especially places that aren’t easily accessible via public transport. When I was drawing up a list of places to visit, Tintern was at the top. I had vague memories of visiting Tintern as a child and I’d been keen to go back after passing it a couple of years ago on the way to a friend’s wedding in Gloucestershire.

Tintern Abbey and the remains of the buildings associated with it

After what seemed like a very long drive from Cardiff along twisty-turny country roads (I wasn’t brave enough to venture onto the M4), I eventually arrived in the idyllic village of Tintern, parking in the handy car park opposite the abbey.

Inside the remains of the church at Tintern Abbey

The abbey was founded in the 12th century by the local powerhouse Walter de Clare, the owner of nearby Chepstow Castle, and it was the first Cistercian abbey in Wales. But in the 16th century, the abbey, like so many religious houses in England and Wales, was closed and plundered during the reformation.

The remains of the monks' dormitory and day room at Tintern Abbey

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the abandoned abbey and the River Wye proved a beacon for many artists and writers, inspiring poems and paintings that celebrated the romantic ruins and its picturesque surroundings. William Wordsworth name-checked the abbey in one of his poems, while JMW Turner and Thomas Gainsborough were among the artists who immortalised it on canvas.

The remains of the presbytery inside Tintern Abbey

Today, the abbey is an enormous, ruined shell, maintained by Cadw, the Welsh historic environment organisation, and is still one of the finest medieval buildings in south Wales. It’s flanked by the ruins of a number of monastic buildings, which I had a great time exploring, seeking out the many nooks and crannies.

Inside the church at Tintern Abbey

The abbey is still a draw for artists and creative types today, and on the day I visited, there were a fair few folk taking pictures of the gothic ruins. It’s a splendid structure, even in its ruined state, and I spent ages photographing the abbey from lots of different angles.

The ruins of the warming house at Tintern Abbey

After spending a good hour at the abbey looking around it all, I decided to go for a long walk and set off along a path close to the River Wye (below). I followed a trail that took me up into the steep hills on the other side of the river, where I went in search of Offa’s Dyke, the ancient structure that roughly marks the border between Wales and England, and the Devil’s Pulpit, which promised excellent views over the valley.

The River Wye at Tintern

The path to Offa’s Dyke took me through a thick forest and was quite uneven underfoot, and as I climbed higher and higher up the hill, it began getting quite windy and at one stage a large branch snapped off a tree in front of me.

The deeper into the woods I got, the more the weather turned less favourable, and after 40 minutes or so, I decided to turn back as I didn’t want to be caught out on a precarious hillside path if it suddenly started bucketing down or the wind picked up even more.

Lemon and elderflower cake, and a pot of tea, at The White Monk Gift Shop and Tea Room in Tintern

Back safely in Tintern, it was time for a well-earned rest, along with a pot of tea and a slice of scrumptious lemon and elderflower cake (above), in a charming cafe next to the abbey, The White Monk Gift Shop and Tea Room. It was the perfect way to end a very agreeable day out.

Info

Tintern Abbey, Tintern NP16 6SE
Adults £6.90, Seniors £5.50, children aged 5-16 and students £4.10, children under 5 free
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/tinternabbey

Ogmore-by-Sea

The rocky coastline at Ogmore-by-Sea

Ogmore-by-Sea is one of my favourite stretches of coastline in south Wales. The rocky strip of land, which boasts fantastic views over the Bristol Channel, is around the corner from another favourite beach, Southerndown, and is a great place for a brisk weekend coastal walk.

Ogmore Beach and the River Ogmore where it meets the Bristol Channel

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a blustery morning exploring Ogmore as Storm Ali approached, whipping up the occasional (painful) blast of sand and giving my hair a very windswept aesthetic.

There’s a long strip of grassland along the top of Ogmore beach and I set off for a stroll along it, admiring the sea views as I walked and stopping every so often to watch the waves crash onto the rocks below. The rocks are home to lots of rock pools and, on a calmer day, they’re a great place to look for marine life such as starfish, anemones and crabs.

Stormy skies above the River Ogmore

Having strolled along the coastal path and back, I wandered down to the shore near the mouth of the River Ogmore (above), and from there, made my way to Ogmore Castle, a short walk down stream.

The entrance to the ruined Ogmore Castle

Built in Norman times by one of William the Conqueror’s knights, William de Londres, Ogmore Castle is now very much a ruin and what’s left of it is maintained by Cadw, the Welsh heritage organisation.

The ruins of Ogmore Castle

The remains of the castle were more extensive than I was expecting, but there still isn’t a huge amount to see. It is, however, in a beautiful location, set against the idyllic (and strategic) backdrop of the Ogmore River. And it was a fun place to spend a little time clambering over the ruins, exploring  its nooks and crannies, and trying to imagine how the castle would have looked during its medieval heyday.

The remains of Ogmore Castle

Down by the river, there are a series of stepping stones you can use to cross it and from there you can walk to Merthyr Mawr, home to a large sandy beach and Wales’s biggest sand dune, and had it been a nicer day I would have set off in their direction. But by now the weather was turning blacker and the rain wasn’t too far off, so I made the decision to turn back rather than risk getting stuck the other side of the river during a storm. I’ll just have to go back next spring/summer when the weather’s better  and properly explore the area.

Info

Ogmore Castle
Open 10am-4pm, daily
Free
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/ogmorecastle

Fonmon Castle

Fonmon Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan

Tucked away in the Vale of Glamorgan countryside, not far from Cardiff Airport, is Fonmon Castle. I first heard about the privately-owned castle a couple of years ago when it opened its doors to the paying public for guided tours on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.

As I work during the week, I hadn’t had a chance to visit until last Wednesday when I had the week off work and was spending my days exploring the countryside near Cardiff. It’s lucky that Fonmon Castle was at the top of my to-visit-list, as it turns out it’s up for sale and, depending on its new owners, might not be open to the public next year.

The small castle dates back to 1180 and since then it’s been owned by just two families – the original owners, the St Johns, and then from the 1650s onwards, the Jones and Boothby families.

One of the gardens at Fonmon Castle

I arrived a little early for my tour and so spent the next 20 minutes exploring the castle grounds, which are also open to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons. As it’s mid-September, there weren’t many flowers to be seen (I suspect the gardens look rather more colourful in spring and early summer), but the gardens were well-maintained and the vegetable plots looked sublime with giant cabbages, lettuces and beans among the veg being grown.

Part of the gardens at Fonmon Castle

Just before 2pm, a side door near the castle entrance opened and I ventured inside to be met by our tour guide. Our friendly guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the castle, and over the next hour, proceeded to tell us in great detail about its history and its former owners, some of whom led rather colourful lives.

As the castle is also a family home, only part of it is open to the public, but we were shown a number of rooms including the grand orange-hued entrance hall with its sparkling chandelier, the old kitchen, and the small library dotted with old books and a cabinet filled with priceless china. Throughout the castle, portraits of its former occupants are on display, which helped bring the stories being told about them to life.

The delightful grand dining room at Fonmon Castle

My favourite room was the delightful grand dining room (above), a large, light and airy room with a beautiful rococo ceiling and bookcases filled with old tomes. The room is often used for weddings and teas, and I can see why it would be a popular venue as it’s enchanting.

The remains of a tower in the grounds of Fonmon Castle

Following our guided tour, I headed off for a stroll across a large, perfectly-mowed lawn, which was once the driveway to the castle, in search of Fonmon tower (above). The derelict, partially-ruined folly was at the end of the lawn, hidden behind some trees.

I’m glad I finally made it to Fonmon Castle – and in the nick of time, too! It’s a wonderfully preserved slice of local history, and it was great to have an opportunity to look around the castle and learn about the families who owned it and their long connection to the region. It was a charming place to spend a leisurely afternoon.

Info

Fonmon Castle, Fonmon, Vale of Glamorgan CF62 3ZN
Open for guided tours on the hour from 2-4pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, between April and September
£6 – adults and children over the age of 14 years
fonmoncastle.com

Dyffryn Gardens 2018

Rockery at Dyffryn Gardens 2018

A couple of months ago, I paid my annual visit to Dyffryn Gardens, a large Edwardian manor house, surrounded by 55 acres of botanical gardens,  just south of Cardiff.

I won’t write about the house as it hasn’t changed much since I wrote about it last year. But there was a wonderful art exhibition in the great hall by the Japanese artist Takumasa Ono. If you come across an exhibition of his work at another National Trust property, I’d recommend checking it out. I spent ages looking at all the prints and paintings for sale, and eventually bought a traditional Japanese-style painting of cherry blossom.

The gardens were as beautiful as ever, and I spent a lovely, relaxing day walking around. As always, I got a little carried away photographing them, even though a number of the flower beds had been left fallow and there were fewer plants and flowers to see.

Here are some of my favourite photos from this year’s visit, starting with this lilac flower:

Lilac flower at Dyffryn Gardens

The blossom was out in force in May:

Pale pink blossom at Dyffryn Gardens

The dragon flies came out to play:

Blue and green dragonflies on a stick in a pond

The Italian Gardens were as delightful as ever:

The Italian Gardens, with a round fountain at its centre, at Dyffryn Gardens

I liked the shape of these red flowers:

Red flowers at Dyffryn Gardens

A couple of the many flowering cacti in the orangery:

A lonely blossom on a tree branch:

Pink flower on a tree branch at Dyffryn Gardens

In case you’re interested in seeing how the gardens have changed over the last few years, here are 2017, 2016 and 2015’s posts.

Cardiff – RHS Flower Show

Plants on display at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

For the last three or four years, I’ve made a beeline to the RHS Flower Show when it’s come to Cardiff and this year was no exception. The three-day event takes place annually in April in the city’s Bute Park and I usually pop along as soon as it opens (10am) on the Saturday, as the huge crowds that flock to the show often make it unbearably busy if you go any later.

The show is spread out over a large area and features a number of show gardens and plants for sale, as well as food, craft and other stalls selling products such as garden furniture and gardening tools. I tend to do a loop of the showground, looking at all there is to see, before going back and buying any bits and pieces that have taken my fancy.

Flowers at the 2018 RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

Despite not having a garden, I usually find myself going home with a few plants – this year I picked up two cactii (as I’m less likely to kill them than a flowering pot plant) and a pretty Japanese flowering quince. I also have a tendency to buy more food than plants as the numerous food stalls selling cakes and cheeses prove too hard to resist.

But my favourite part of the event is the show gardens as I’m always impressed by the imagination of the garden designers and the creative ways they make use of the space, objects and plants. I find it almost impossible to view a garden as a blank canvas and visualise all the different and creative things you can do to it, so I have a ton of admiration for those who can.

The Japanese-style Disequilibrium garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

My favourite show garden this year was the silver medal winning garden Disequilibrium (above). I’m a sucker for traditional Japanese-style gardens as they’re so pretty, and I particularly liked the use of water in this one and the rusted red metal backdrop that contrasted beautifully with the pristine, delicate nature of the garden.

The Urban Regeneration Garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

This year’s gold medal-winning garden was the Urban Regeneration Garden (above) with its stark concrete blocks that form a water feature. The garden was too minimalist and didn’t have enough plants for my tastes, but I can appreciate why it was a top medal winner as it looks very professional. Apparently the concrete blocks were a disused water tank the garden’s designers found while out walking, and while it’s a great way to reuse discarded objects, I found the garden as a whole too cold and uninviting.

The Reimagined Past garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

I loved this next garden, entitled The Reimagined Past, as I really liked the way the designers had incorporated reclaimed household objects such as the fireplace, sink and table into an outdoor setting. I also really liked the use of colour, and the orange-red bricks in particular added a striking contrast to the green and purple plants. This quirky, creative and colourful design is the sort of thing I’d like to have if I had a garden.

The 'Cwm Caerdydd' garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

I would have adored this next garden as a child with its man-made water feature, cave and mini-mountain to climb. I could imaging having great fun running over the top of the mound or having secret tea parties in the grotto behind the waterfall. Called Cwm Caerdydd (Cardiff Valley), it was designed to replicate the hills of the south Wales valleys, and it’s a fantastic, playful use of space.

Every year the flower show features a series of wheelbarrows planted by local school children and visitors to the show are asked to vote for their favourite. So before leaving, I had a look around the wheelbarrows. I love how much effort the children put into their wheelbarrows, they’re all brilliant, and it’s always difficult to decide which one to vote for. I ended up voting, not for the most eye-catching garden, but for one of the ones that was quite messy and looked as though the teachers had let the children run wild.

I spent a great couple of hours looking around this year’s RHS Flower Show in Cardiff, and I found myself wishing I had my own garden as there were so many lovely looking plants and flowers for sale. I’m not sure I’ll ever make much of a gardener as I’m not remotely green-fingered, but it’s fun spending a few hours pretending I could be and imagining what my ideal garden would look like.

Barry Island

Whitmore Bay, Barry Island

When I was a child, Barry Island was the most exciting place in the world. At the time it was the rundown site of a Butlin’s holiday camp, but it was also home to a fairground, games arcades and candy floss, so until I discovered the magic of Disneyland Paris, it was the most thrilling place on earth. I can still remember how excited I’d get whenever we’d get the train to the island.

Nowadays the Butlin’s camp has long gone and the island boasts sandy beaches, grassy headlands and hidden coves, which makes it a fantastic place for a Sunday stroll. The island’s transformation is down to the local council, the Vale of Glamorgan, which over the past few years has done an excellent job of sprucing it up, installing playful beach huts and other amenities, and opening up walking paths along the cliffs.

Friars Point, Barry Island

A few Sundays ago, I spent the day at Barry Island, enjoying a pleasant walk in the brisk January sunshine. We started off at Friar’s Point, the headland to the right of the island’s pleasure beach, Whitmore Bay. The headland is a site of special scientific interest because of its cowslip meadow and boasts great views of the sandy beaches either side of it – the one above looks out towards the headland at the Knap in Barry.

Whitmore Bay, Barry Island

From there, we ambled down to Whitmore Bay (above), where we walked across the long sandy beach, past the promenade, the pleasure gardens and the two eye-catching shelters that date from the 1920s.

The beach was full of families enjoying a day out, as well as dog walkers, and there were lots of dogs happily running along the shore front, dancing merrily in and out of the waves. During the peak season, dogs are banned from the beach but at this time of the year, when it’s far too chilly to venture into the water and the beach isn’t too crowded, they’re permitted to roam the sands.

Beach huts, Barry Island

From Whitmore Bay, we continued up towards the other headland that flanks it, Nell’s Point, passing the colourful beach huts, climbing wall and art installation that sprays water during the summer months.

Nell’s Point looks out over the Bristol Channel, and on the day of our walk, the sky was clear so we could make out the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm. Flat Holm belongs to Wales and is the most southerly part of the country; while Steep Holm, some six miles off the coast of Weston-super-Mare, belongs to England.

Nell’s Point used to be home to the Butlin’s holiday camp, which closed in 1996, and it’s taken almost 20 years to remove all traces of the 1960s resort and restore the area back to its natural beauty. These days you can explore the ruins of a Norman chapel, St Baruc’s, there, as well as the remains of a gun emplacement that was used to help defend the coastline during the Second World War.

Jackson's Bay, Barry Island

We carried on walking around the headland to the nearby cove of Jackson’s Bay (above), stopping at the Coastwatch Station along the way to visit its small exhibition about the work of the Barry coastguard.

Dating from the Jurassic and Triassic periods, the beaches around south Wales are a geological goldmine and popular with fossil hunters. The cliffs that surround Jackson’s Bay are made from layer upon layer of red and grey rock, and we couldn’t help but wonder as we walked down to the beach what sorts of fossils might be lying within them and what sorts of geological events occurred to create such striking strata.

Rocks, Barry Island

I always enjoy my day trips to Barry Island – these days for very different reasons to when I was a child. Barry Island has been a rundown shell for most of my life, so it’s fantastic to see it now so vibrant and full of life, and to have the chance to walk along its beaches and headlands, and admire the splendid views. It might not be the most exciting place on earth for me anymore, but it always makes me smile and brings back lots of fond memories.

Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle

A few of my friends came down to Cardiff to celebrate the New Year and while they were here, they were keen to have a look around Cardiff Castle. I’ve been to the castle a few times and have a key to the castle that lets residents visit for free, but I’m always a little ashamed to admit, that despite growing up in the city, I didn’t visit the castle until my early twenties.

The castle is unusual in that it features the remains of castles built by the Romans and the Normans, as well as a 19th century stately home. The castle dates back to the first century when the Romans built the first of four forts on the site. These days only the remnants of the final stone fort remain and you can still see parts of its ancient walls, which were destroyed by the Normans, in the visitor centre.

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Our first port of call was the Norman keep (above), which sits atop an artificial mound and dominates the landscape within the castle walls. Originally built as a wooden structure in 1081, it was rebuilt in stone in the 1130s, and used to be far bigger than it is today as much of the keep’s outer buildings were destroyed in 1784.

View of the main house from the top of the castle keep

We climbed the many steep steps to the keep where we were greeted by a large empty round space. We then climbed even more rickety, steep steps to the top of the tower. The staircase to the top is very narrow, which means there’s only room for one group of people to go up or down at any one time. This created some confusion with groups getting stuck at the top or bottom for ages, waiting for the non-stop flow of people from the opposite direction to finish. But the wait to get to the top was worth it as the keep boasts fantastic views over the castle grounds and the city.

We spent a little while admiring the views from all directions, before eventually making our way back down and over to the castle apartments (above), which were once home to the Bute family. During the Victorian era, John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, was reportedly the richest man in the world, and the eccentric, oppulent residence he had designed by the architect William Burges is testament to this wealth.

Cardiff Castle apartments

If you visit Cardiff Castle, it’s worth joining a house tour if you can. These last 50 minutes and take you around the entire residence, which means you’ll see the full extent of Burges’s splendid architecture and decor. During the summer months you can also tour the castle’s striking clock tower.

On our visit, there didn’t seem to be any house tours running, so we took the self-guided tour around the castle apartments instead. The self-guided tour is much shorter than the guided house tour and a number of the castle’s most impressive rooms are roped off. Even though I was a little disappointed we didn’t get to see all the rooms, my friends, who’d never been before, were impressed by what they saw.

The apartments’ most impressive room is the Arab room (above), which you can see on the self-guided tour. This quirky room features decorative marble walls and flooring, and a dazzling roof. The square, oddly shaped roof is decorated in an intricate gold, red, white and black pattern, and is stunning. It’s one of the most unusual roofs I’ve come across. The room’s tiny and only a couple of people are allowed in to see it at any one time, but it’s worth the wait to get in as it’s so distinctive and over-the-top.

The other rooms on the self-guided tour include the great hall, which features a fabulous fresco along the top of the walls that depicts the English civil war of the 1130s and 1140s; two dining rooms; and a parlour. The ceilings in the various rooms were more often-than-not jaw-droppingly embellished and I made a point of looking upwards whenever I entered a new room to see the lavish decoration above my head.

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The tour finished in the library (above), a long narrow room, which is filled with wooden bookcases brimming with books. We were delighted to find a couple of complete volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and found ourselves reminiscing about our pre-internet childhoods when we had to consult the encyclopaedia if we wanted to look something up. It’s a beautiful room and was a lovely end to our tour of the apartments.

The tunnels inside Cardiff Castle's walls

From the house, we headed over to the tunnels that lie within the castle walls. During the Second World War, the tunnels were used as an air-raid shelter for some 1,800 local residents and they extend quite a distance. We walked the full length of the tunnels, stopping to admire the many wartime posters (below) that lined the walls urging women to join the land army, grow their own food and mind what they said in public.

Some of the posters were a little sexist and seemed to imply that women couldn’t be trusted to keep secrets as well as men, but they were fascinating to look at and really helped transport us back in time to the 1940s. As we walked through the dark and damp tunnels, wartime music played over the loudspeakers, which added to the sense that we were back in 1940, taking shelter during an air raid.

One of my favourite features was the small canteen that had been recreated in one of the recesses in the castle walls. There was a small makeshift stove, an urn and it was “selling” teas, coffees and scones for a few pence. All the authentic wartime touches helped bring the tunnels alive and made them all the more interesting to explore. It also made me grateful that we don’t have to seek shelter in them any more as they were quite cold and damp, and I’m not sure how much protection they’d offer during a bombing raid.

Inside the Firing Line museum at Cardiff Castle

Having explored the tunnels, we made our way back to the visitor centre to have a look around the museum. Firing Line: Cardiff Castle Museum of the Welsh Soldier is a small museum dedicated to two Welsh regiments, The Royal Welsh and 1st The Queen Dragoon Guards.

The museum takes you through the history of the two regiments through major conflicts, such as the Second World War, the Anglo-Zulu War and the Napoleonic wars. It also explores the role of the regiments during the height of the British Empire. The museum is well curated, there are lots of interesting artefacts and everything is explained really well.

One of the most interesting aspects of the museum was learning about the soldiers and their experiences. One display, for example, looked at six men who were awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery, why they were awarded the medal and what happened to them afterwards (which in some cases was quite tragic). There was also a hands-on display where you could dress up in the regiments’ uniforms.

All in all I enjoyed my visit to Cardiff Castle – even if I didn’t get a chance to explore the entire house. I know I’m biased as I’m from Cardiff, but I do think the castle is one of the best and most unusual castles in the UK as there are so many varied things to see and do. It’s a strange mix of a traditional, ruined Norman castle, Roman walls, a wacky, ornate stately home, air-raid shelters and a military museum. I’ve now been to the castle several times and never get bored of it, it’s a fascinating place.

Info
Cardiff Castle, Castle Street, Cardiff CF10 3RB
Open daily, 9am-6pm (March to October), 9am-5pm (November to February)
Adults £12.50 (plus an extra £3.25 for the house tour), children £9 (plus £2 for the house tour)
cardiffcastle.com

Cardiff – St Fagans

St Fagans Castle and gardens, Cardiff

One of my favourite places for a Sunday stroll is the St Fagans National Museum of History on the outskirts of Cardiff. The museum is an open-air museum set in 100 acres of woodland in the grounds of St Fagans Castle.

Blaenwaun Post Office, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

The castle and the grounds were given to the public in 1948 by their then-owner the Earl of Plymouth and since then more than 40 buildings from different eras from all over Wales have been rebuilt in the grounds.

Over the summer, the main entrance building, which had been closed for the past few years for an extensive refurbishment, reopened and I was keen to see what it was like. I was surprised to find the main building was quite sparse with an enormous foyer and a small information desk, a new café and a shop. But it turned out it has yet to fully reopen as the exhibition galleries are still being refurbished.

Turog Bakery, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

As a creature of habit, I always follow the same tried-and-tested route whenever I visit St Fagans. My first port of call is always the bakery (above) because their cheesy buns are one of my favourite things in the world to eat and they’re so popular they often sell out. There’s nothing more disappointing than a trip to St Fagans to find there are no cheesy buns. So cheesy buns purchased, we were free to stroll around the rest of the grounds at our leisure.

A pig on the farm at the St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

First off, we headed down to the farm (above), which is home to numerous animals such as geese, chickens, and my favourites, the pigs. I love the pigs, especially the adorable piglets, and make a beeline to see them whenever I visit. They always look so content lounging on the ground or moving around their pens, sniffing as they go and munching the straw around them, that I could spend hours watching them.

Siop Losin (sweet shop) at the St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Having spent quite a long time watching the pigs, we strolled back towards the bakery, past the old water mill and the toll house, and on to the Gwalia grocery stores. There you can buy traditional Welsh produce such as cheese, jam, seaweed snacks and honey. Next door there’s a new sweet shop (above), so we popped inside and found a back wall filled with jars of old fashioned sweets, while the area around the counter was brimming with chocolate, Kendal mint cake and sticks of rock. I resisted the temptation to load up on sweet treats and instead plumped for an intriguing pot of raspberry and lavender jam from the grocery stores.

Oakdale Workmen's Institute, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Behind the Gwalia stores is the Oakdale working men’s institute (above). I’m from a long line of coal miners in the Valleys and the institute is one of my favourite buildings as I feel it’s the one that best represents my Welsh heritage. Working men’s institutes were built all over the Valleys to provide coal miners and their families with a social and cultural centre, and this wonderful building boasts a library, reading room and committee room. Over the years, I’ve spent ages poring over the photographs that hang on the walls, wondering whether or not any of the faces staring back at me are my ancestors. Probably not – but it’s not impossible!

After the institute, we wandered up through the woods to Llys Llywellyn (Llywellyn’s Court). It’s a recreation of a medieval princes’ court from Anglesey and has been under construction for a few years. I like popping by whenever I’m in St Fagans to see how it’s coming along and this time I was surprised to see one of the buildings was almost finished. I’m really looking forward to having a look around it when it opens as there aren’t any surviving examples of the princes’ courts and I’m keen to see what they would have looked like.

From Llys Llywellyn, we walked the short distance to another of my favourite buildings, St Teilo’s Church (above). From the outside, the church looks like any regular church, but inside it’s elaborately painted as it would have been during the Middle Ages. I love looking inside and seeing the decoration. I often forget when I visit old churches in the UK that many of them would have been painted during the Middle Ages and I’m always amazed at how colourful and decorative St Teilo’s Church is as it’s so different to the plain, stone churches we usually see in the UK.

Wicker man at St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

After looking around the church, we strolled up to the old slate farmhouse, which was closed for renovation work, then walked past the woods that played host to the Battle of St Fagans on 8 May 1648 during the Civil War.

As we wandered back down towards the centre of the museum, I was intrigued by the giant wicker man that was standing tall in one of the fields (above). The wicker man had been erected for Halloween and was set to be burned during one of the museum’s nighttime Halloween events. There were lots of craft stalls nearby, too, where you could buy handmade goods or try your hand at making a mini wicker man, pottery or jewellery.

Our final destination was St Fagans Castle (above right). I love strolling around the castle gardens as they’re so vast and varied. They include Italian-style gardens on the hill leading up to the castle and a series of rectangular ponds beneath them (above left). Up near the castle there’s a fruit and vegetable garden with a number of greenhouses, as well as a series of gardens beautifully laid out in different patterns.

It’s a really pretty, relaxing place to walk, especially during the autumn when the trees are a medley of reds, yellows, oranges and greens. I’ve been inside the castle countless times, so I often skip the tour inside and just spend time enjoying the gardens, which we did this time, too.

Red stone farmhouse, St Fagans National History Museum, Cardiff

From the castle, we then headed back to the main building for a well-earned, warming cup of tea in the café. The perfect way to end a very pleasant autumn stroll.

Info
St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff CF5 6XB
Open daily, 10am-5pm
Free
museum.wales/stfagans/