The UK has no shortage of beauteous castles that seem to span the entire length of documented human civilization, but there's one particular fortress that's getting all the attention today. Located north of Swansea, one of Wales's most enchanting castles sits atop an imposing hill where breathtaking scenes of medieval history can be witnessed in all their majestic glory. The grey stone fortress of Carreg Cennen takes center stage, dominating the landscape of mountainous farmlands on which it rests - a location of astounding history and beauty in the quintessential Welsh countryside.
The haggard, yet jaw-dropping ruins of Carreg Cennen may be a visible reminder of the eventful history and brutal stories of past that once occurred throughout Great Britain over the amassed centuries. However, in spite of its splendor and astounding historical significance that one would assume would attract droves of people, it does see phenomenally low visitor numbers - indeed granting those that do descend the most exclusive, magical experience of all; a mighty Great British fortress all to themselves without another soul in sight to spoil the view.
A Full Guide To Carreg Cennen Castle
Visitors are met with a somewhat taxing climb when they decide to head to the hilltop on which the castle sits. After the laborious trek, the reward is immediately clear upon completing the ascent; not solely being in the presence of one of the most significant historical wonders of Wales, but also sensational vistas of Black Mountain and the verdant Welsh hills that surround the medieval stronghold.
Indeed, the looming castle of Carreg Cennen is situated on the cattle-roamed grounds of a private farm through which visitors must pass in order to access. Continuing upwards brings folk to the castle's outer ward, where truly mesmeric views are the first gift offered by Carreg Cennen.
Once the coming to terms with the spectacular vistas has been completed, visitors will first notice rocks and old remnants of the castle's external fortifications, which once enclosed workshops, lime kilns, and stables all sheltered by a stone wall and gateway seen on the right-hand side - a duo that marks the castle's less protected side.
Interestingly, the design of this enclosure was conjured to trap any would-be intruders and prevent them from accessing the inside of the castle. Furthermore, at this point, visitors can spot the enormous northeast tower of the castle that overlooks the ward - a structure that was purposely positioned for a poised attack on said trapped, would-be invaders.
Here's What To Know About The Entrance And Bridges Of The Castle
With the entrance, or moreover the castle's entirety itself being a meticulously planned out defensive outwork, it's safe to say that penetrating its confines unscathed was a guaranteed difficult feat for any potential hostile. After crossing the view of the aforementioned watchtower, both friends and foes seeking entry into the gatehouse would be met by a series of bridges laid across deep pits, which were constructed so that anyone entering would be first ushered along a narrow walkway entailing sharp turns in every direction.
At any given moment, the bridges traversing these pits could be drawn from their supports, resulting in an insurmountable barrier of chasms. And although the bridges have since been removed - replaced by secure wooden ramps that can be seen today - the threat of the pits remains as hair-rising as they once were.
What's more, the castle's exterior still echoes the strength and defiance of its heyday; its external appearance yet evokes the reality of its impenetrable defenses. However, it's its interior that has suffered - not only time wear but also the consequences of these lands' volatile history.
Much of the stronghold's internal parts are ruined - the product of demolition in 1462 after the famous conflict between Lancaster and York, known as the Wars of the Roses. In spite of the damage done, visitors can still gauge with their mind's eye just how magnificent and fortified the medieval barbican would have looked in its younger days.
What To Discover At The Castle Today
Today, though, what visitors can discover are the remnants of numerous buildings each set along the inner ward's walls. The main entrance to the inner courtyard was the twin-towered gatehouse located on the north wall, while the remains of the middle gate tower are seen just before the gatehouse - whose defenses also included a drawbridge, as well as arrow slits, two portcullises, hefty wooden doors, battlements, and machicolations (the term used for openings that missiles or water could be dropped through on top of attackers or fires). The gatehouse also served as the castle's keep and provided a final refuge during possible invasions.
In addition, the gatehouse was protected by the middle gate tower, the latter whose purpose was of great importance; as the last line of defense before the gatehouse was breached, any invaders would have had to endure a tremendous shower of arrows hailing from this tower. Additionally, historians believe that this multipurpose middle gate tower's basement was, more likely than not, used as a prison.
Fascinating Artifacts At The Gate Towers
Visitors who head further to the gate towers of the inner ward will find even more fascinating artifacts and functions telling the story of the people and workers who used to call this place home; there are a number of baking ovens, along with two cisterns - a kind of stone-lined pit that would have caught rainwater for drinking water, though it was not the castle's main water container. The principal water receptacle, however, was the clay-lined ditch, which can be found just outside the gatehouse.
As for the south and west walls of the inner ward, there are intriguing portions of the wall-walk that are still intact and at their original height. These are major parts of the castle's defenses with a deathly drop that made any further defenses on this side unnecessary. Bounded by the simple-and-basic southwest tower and the well-planned-out northwest tower, the intersecting west wall with its strategic arrow slits was constructed on the limestone bedrock beneath and unfortunately shows evident damage in its timeworn state.
Interestingly, the northwest tower was one of the most important parts of the castle, sheltering its most vulnerable side. Round in design, the tower's shape would have given an uninterrupted, 360-degree view of any visitors or attackers who might have approached. Plus, this tower's basement has even more defensive design up its sleeve; boasting three arrow slits with one modified gun port added in the fifteenth century to allow for brand-new weapons technology - the musket - the northwest tower undoubtedly played a huge role in safeguarding the entire fortress.
On the other hand, starting at the northeast tower just east of the gatehouse, the eastern wing is the castle's most developed side that would have been the base of its residents' daily lives and domestic activities. This wing consists of a compact complex of buildings home to the main domestic chambers and living quarters for the garrison. Plus, the tower itself - despite being defensive in nature and guarding the outer and inner wards - housed at least some basic comforts that would have been considered luxuries at the time; think fireplaces and latrines, as well as the castle's kitchen complete with a giant fireplace, pantry and butter directly next door.
Logically, neighboring this structure was the main hall - a center of socialization where meals were enjoyed, and castle guests were entertained. What's even more striking about this particular room is its central hearth - the base of which is still on show to fulfill the gazes of curious visitors. Heading a little beyond the hall sees visitors arrive at a small tower that hosted the castle's chapel - one of the most significant factors of all medieval fortresses in Great British history. On a final note, the very end of this east wing boasts the Lord's private apartments, where his two rooms contain decorative windows and an elaborate fireplace - features that signify the occupant's wealth, status, and importance.
Carreg Cennen Castle's Most Entertaining Area
Lastly, in spite of coming this far into Carreg Cennen Castle, its most entertaining area has not yet been discussed. Visitors who explore the inner ward's southeast corner will be met by a series of steps descending into the underbelly of the stronghold, eventually arriving at a moist, dark limestone cavern in which torches are an absolute must. In fact, Carreg Cennen is one of only a handful of castles in the UK to have such an amazing natural formation - one that's made even more incredible by the fact that there are several of these such caves carved out in the limestone bedrock beneath the fortress.
Even though there are a number of caves present underground, just this one and this one alone was used by castle dwellers, evidenced by its passageway lined with stone along with its vaulted ceiling and several pigeonholes built into its wall. Back in the day, these pigeonholes were likely used to form a dovecote, possibly in order to breed game food for winter, or to host homing pigeons. What's even more interesting is that, initially, the cave was open to the outside, in turn meaning that the castle was vulnerable to infiltration by any enemies. However, there is visible proof that its exterior end was intentionally blocked from the inside, preventing access from the outside in doing so.
The History Of Carreg Cennen Castle
Carreg Cennen Castle possesses a long, illustrious story that goes as far back as the twelfth century, although there does exist some archeological evidence that points at the Romans and other prehistoric peoples employing the lands on which it rests; an old cache of Roman coins was once unearthed, in addition to no less than four prehistoric skeletons, which were dug up at the site in previous years.
Although the area's human activity predates the castle by a significant number of centuries, both legend and documented evidence hint at the fortress's fascinating beginnings. Legendary sources do actually suggest that the castle originated in the Dark Ages and was once held by Urien Rheged, Lord of Iskennen, and his son Owain - both of whom were knights during King Arthur's reign. In lieu of legend however comes recorded history, which points at the original builders of the castle as being Welsh Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth, who is said to have constructed it in the late twelfth century.
The prince's descendent, Rhys Fychan, went on to inherit Carreg Cennen Castle - a succession that was trodden on by his mother, Matilda de Braeos, who, after inheriting the stronghold, handed it over to the English in an apparent act of betrayal. Rhys Fychan did manage to acquire the castle once again in 1248, however, family drama struck again when his uncle, Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg, snatched ownership. All of these dramatic family shenanigans wouldn't matter much later anyway; King Edward I seized the castle in 1277, after which it has remained under the control of the English ever since.
Sadly, in the late thirteenth century - the time when King Edward I went through a wave of castle-building in Wales - the original fortress was demolished and replaced with the mighty structures and ruins seen today. The demolition is thought to have been undertaken by a man named John Giffard, who fought for King Edward I in the battle of Irfon Bridge in 1282 in which the Welsh army was defeated and Prince Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, the last native Prince of Wales, perished. Mr. Giffard's reward from the grateful King Edward I was, as one may have guessed, the esteemed Carreg Cennen Castle, which he apparently adorned with all the hallmarks of a powerful Lord, showing off his status and wealth in a symbol of control and dominance.
Future owners of the castle included Hugh le Despenser, John of Gaunt, and Henry of Bolingbroke - a prominent man who would later become King Henry IV. When Henry's reign commenced, the fortress became the property of the Crown, however, it was later besieged during the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr around 1403 - an event that saw it suffer immense damage. But that wasn't the end of the castle's lengthy history of flitting ownership and on-off conflict; along came the famous Wars of the Roses, during which the castle's owners sided with the people of Lancaster, and following York's victory in 1461, it was consequently destroyed since it was considered a potential threat to the monarchy at the time.
By this point, Carreg Cennen Castle had suffered centuries of aging and ruin - the result of its many centuries standing and seemingly prolific battles endured. Though somewhat in shambles it may have been, it was still deemed a worthy trophy to own, with later proprietors including people of elevated status, such as the likes of Sir Rhys ap Thomas and the Vaughans from Golden Grove - the latter who bestowed the fortress in the early nineteenth century to the Earls of Cawdor.
The Castle In Recent Times
Come more recent times starting in 1932, Carreg Cennen Castle was put under the care of the Office of Works, although the Earls of Cawdor did keep hold of it right into the twentieth century. Then, along came the 1960s when ownership of the castle was accidentally obtained by the Morris family of Castell Farm; unbeknownst to Lord Cawdor, he made an error in the wording of the deeds when selling the farm to the family, inadvertently including the fortress as a part of the property.
Alas, arriving at the present day in 2022, Carreg Cennen Castle - or rather what remains of it on the evergreen hilltop in the stunning and remote Welsh countryside - is the responsibility of CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments - an agency devoted to the preservation of Wales's historic architecture and ancient heritage sites, and who has evidently done a fine job since undertaking the stronghold's conservation and protection.
It is the efforts of teams like these who protect and preserve sites of immense historical importance, whose efforts enable history buffs of the modern day to view, explore, and experience spell-binding structures that remain as but a speck of their former glory. And, now that Carreg Cennen Castle, its build, and its volatile history have been scoured through in great detail, there's only one thing left to do: witness the mighty stronghold and savor its untold beauty and visible medieval stories of past in the most authentic, enriching way possible - in-person.