Remember how I was all, ‘I wish I’d been able to walk more in Bath’ yesterday? Well, today, I made up for it. I walked. I walked some more. And then, because I had time, I took a walk. But it was such a perfect day, every step was worth it (except maybe the last few. Those were not fun.)
So, what was the first thing I did this morning? Well, I took a train from Cardiff to nearby Caerphilly. What’s in Caerphilly, you ask?
Caerphilly is massive, sprawling over 30 acres. According to one sign, an enemy would have to cross three drawbridges, four sets of doors and portcullises and a ginormous gatehouse just to get to the inner keep.
I love the philosophy of the rulers of this castle: Why have just one moat when you could have two?
Some castles, I find pretty or interesting or impressive. But some go just a little further and give me that Narnia feeling. I think of Prince Caspian when the four children come back to a ruin and they wander around feeling like they know it, but not sure how.
When I climbed through cracks in broken stone walls, brushing my fingers through the flowers and ivy that had overtaken parts of it, I guess I was coming as close as I ever could to that feeling. I’m somewhere and sometime else. I love that feeling.
Yes, I know. I’m a special one.
But, really, when you walk into an old banquet hall and there’s a table with four thrones (or, okay, wooden chairs), what are you supposed to think about? I mean, really! (In case you are wondering, yes, I sat in one and was very well pleased with myself)
Since I was alone, I took exactly as long as I wanted to walk through the ruins, enjoying the green grass, the warm air, the blue slowly overtaking the sky. And, of course, every little room, stairwell, tower, and rampart of the stone fortress. I hear there’s some tower in Pisa that leans and everyone goes to see it. Well, my newly acquired castle in Wales has one too. So there.
I was wandering around the grounds within the outermost walls of the castle before heading to my next destination when I spotted this carved tree trunk.
This. This is why Wales wins the prize for coolest place ever.
So, my original plan was to go back to Cardiff and find a bus to some park or other on a list of locations the kind lady at the hostel had given me, but here’s the thing – there’s another castle just a short ride away from Caerphilly. How could I not go see it?
When I finally tracked down the right bus and was whisked away down a winding road to a tiny town on the edge of a hillside, I discovered that I would have the pleasure of a half mile walk straight up the side of the hill to get to the castle.
Yeah, I’ve had enough walking to last me the rest of the year (but, of course, I would be heading off for five days of hiking in a few days… so never mind that). After making the arduous climb, I reached this gate to Castell Coch. At least it was a beautiful walk.
I then had to climb yet another increasingly steep hill to the castle. I gave the people driving past me in cars very dark looks. But it was worth it. See? This is possibly one of the cutest castles I have ever encountered. It has an interesting story behind it too. While it’s built on the original foundations of a thirteenth century fortress, the one standing today is due to an extraordinarily rich, Welsh aristocrat with an enthusiasm for all things medieval. With the help of an architect who shared his passion, they rebuilt the fortress.
The thing is, they didn’t know what it looked like before, so they made their best guess. As a result, Castell Coch (which means Red Castle) is the Victorian medievalist’s fanciful reimagining. I can’t really complain. It’s so darn cute!
This is the same marquess who was responsible for the gaudy interiors I photographed at Cardiff Castle. He owned Caerphilly as well in his day. He was that rich. So, it was no surprise to find the same colorful Victorian-tries-to-recreate-medieval-style rooms in Castell Coch.
But there was one room that I did enjoy. The drawing room had a vivid ceiling with the same deep colors and gold accents. It was pretty enough, I suppose.
But it was the detailed paintings on the walls that I absolutely loved. These belong in a children’s book. The whimsy and variety of the creatures kept me occupied for quite a while. For instance, look at the frog in the picture below. What’s in the bottle and why does he look so concerned?
Instead of just painting generic birds, each one is distinctive and very detailed. I love the owl.
The ceiling from directly below the chandelier… I like the brilliant colors more here than in other rooms I’ve seen, but it’s still a bit overwhelming, especially in contrast to the lovely, gentle colors used for the animal walls.
One floor up, we have another of those garish, overdone rooms that I found hard to look at. I would never be able to sleep in here. The colors… the gold… it would drive me mad.
I admit, the wash table with the little towers is pretty cute. I would use that.
Now, normally I claim castles for my own, as I did with Caerphilly, but I decided to demonstrate how generous and kind I can be by giving this castle away.
So, to my sister: you now have your own adorable little castle in Wales.
There was a little tea room in the castle and they had cake. So I stopped in, got myself a pot of tea and a slice of cake, and lingered over a guide book the shop’s owner provided.
And this is what always surprises and touches me when I’m traveling: the people that I meet. Another couple came in and began chatting with the sweet older woman who owned the tea shop. They mentioned Caerphilly and how they’ve never been and I piped up that it was splendid and they should go! My accent was noted and immediately the travelers were compelled to share their adventures on Route 66 and how much they love huge, huge America; I, on the other hand, told them how much I adored the small towns and old castles of Britain. We exchanged traveling stories and the shop owner chatted with us as she served the food.
When she found out I was traveling alone, she told me that I absolutely must call her if I ran into any trouble and she would help me in any way she could. I thanked her, but I didn’t realize how sincere she was until she came up to me with a little scrap of paper with the shop’s numberand her home phone number.
‘It will put my mind at ease,’ she told me, ‘to know that you can call if you get into trouble.’
People are so incredible sometimes.
I was still contemplating the random, sincere kindness when another unexpected encounter occurred. The tea shop owner had suggested a couple of good vantage points to see the castle from below. The first was from the golf course.
So, intrepid and determined to get some good shots, I found the golf course and wandered in, unsure of where to go or if I was going to get hit by a flying golf ball (round projectiles have a habit of finding me) or get yelled at by someone for being there.
Sure enough, as I walked past the shop at the entrance, a man came hurrying out and called after me. Nervously I told him I was here for a picture. He asked me where I was from and when I told him I was American, he said, ‘Normally I don’t let people onto the course, but you’ve come far, so I’ll take you to the best picture spot myself.’
And away we went, chatting about photography. He brought me all the way across the course to a pretty vantage point.
‘The last photographer who was here used the tree in the picture,’ he informed me seriously. ‘That’s what the professionals do.’
So I used the tree too. I’m not sure what it did, but it’s still a lovely spot.
After asking to see my pictures, he led me back and wished me well on my way. I can’t help thinking that the people I’ve met and talked to on this trip have been some of the nicest. It’s a bit sad to think I’ll never see them again, even though the tea shop owner all but demanded that I return someday.
I found the second recommended vantage, just beyond St. Martin’s church. Then it was off to the bus and back to Caerphilly to catch a train. There was more to my day, but I think this post is quite long enough, don’t you?