Set in its huge artificial lakes and mighty walls, Caerphilly Castle tells the story of conflicts and rivalries in the medieval March of Wales.
This walk is one of 13 separate circular routes which together make up the St Thomas Way.
Place and History
Caerphilly today is still dominated by its magnificent medieval castle – the largest in Wales and second-largest in Britain.
Work on the castle began under Gilbert de Clare, seventh Earl of Gloucester, in 1268. Gilbert, known as ‘the Red’, because of his red hair and fiery temper, was the Marcher Lord of Glamorgan and the built the castle to secure his control over the region. The castle was attacked during the uprisings led by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1270 and by Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294, as well as in later conflicts, but its fortifications – a concentric system of artificial lakes and walls – ensured that the castle endured. The cutting-edge technology of the castle design and architecture here in Caerphilly influenced the castles of King Edward I in north Wales, playing a pivotal role in warfare, politics and (English) empire-building in medieval Wales.
With political change in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the castle fell into decline.
In the nineteenth century, the third and fourth Marquesses of Bute began a programme of restoration and re-building, removing houses which encroached on the site and later re-instating landscape features such as the lakes.
Today, it’s possible to walk around the castle perimeter and view the spectacular walls and ruins across the outer lake. Or, you go inside the castle itself (Cadw property; entry fee applies). Highlights include the splendid Great Hall and living apartments, replica siege engines – and the medieval communal toilets! The leaning south-east tower is also one of Caerphilly Castle’s most famous features. The tower leans even more sharply than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, probably due to subsidence, although some argue that the castle was deliberately ‘slighted’ or damaged in the English Civil War, to prevent its use as a fortification.
The Hanged Man’s Journey
Although nowhere near the scale and splendour of Caerphilly Castle, the New Castle of medieval Swansea played a powerful role in the town, and in the story of the hanged man, William Cragh.
As the name suggests, the New Castle was Swansea’s second Norman castle. The first – a simple motte and bailey castle – was built around 1106. The urban layout of medieval Swansea suggests that the Normans may have built their castle in the middle of the existing town – the main High Street running north to south is visibly displaced and distorted around the castle bailey. Work on the New Castle began in 1284 – 90, under the lordship of William de Briouze – the Anglo-Norman Marcher Lord who hanged William Cragh. The castle had comfortable living accommodation, and even indoor toilets!
The castle plays a key part in the story of William Cragh.
Located on the first floor (typical for a Welsh castle at this time), the main hall provided a vantage-point from where William de Briouze and his men could watch the hanging. This raised perspective from the castle hall would have been an important feature for security, and for surveying and controlling the local town. Equally, as the main structure in Swansea, the castle would have been widely visible, symbolising the lord’s power and authority – in much the same way as that other key local landmark: the gallows standing at the top of Gibbet Hill.
The awe-inspiring structures of castles like Caerphilly and Swansea had martial and defensive purposes, but were also designed as symbolic markers of Norman power, wealth and control.
St Thomas and Medieval Belief
Gilbert de Clare, Marcher Lord of Glamorgan, built Caerphilly Castle during his wars with Welsh rebels. But they weren’t his only enemies. Gilbert was also an adversary of St Thomas of Hereford.
In 1290, Thomas (then Bishop of Hereford) and Gilbert de Clare opposed each other in a major dispute. Gilbert had claimed hunting rights over Malvern Chase, though these were legally held by the church. But Thomas, who had trained as a lawyer in the universities of Oxford and Paris, was not intimidated, and brought his legal expertise to bear. He began a litigation against Gilbert, to the Marcher Lord’s fury. The court and the opposing parties made their way to a place in the disputed land. Thomas dressed himself in his full bishop’s robes, complete with mitre and cross; his priests were dressed in their vestments; candles were lit. Then, dramatically, Thomas extinguished the candles and pronounced a sentence of excommunication – exclusion from the church – against Gilbert and anyone who trespassed on the rights of the church of Hereford.
Thomas won the case, and Gilbert was forced to dig a deep ditch to separate his lands from those of the church – a trench which can still be seen today along the summit of the Malvern Hills.
Remembering this dispute years later, Thomas’s servant, Hugh le Barber, recalled Gilbert’s rage, and that he insulted and threatened the bishop. The pope’s investigators, sensing that perhaps this might have prompted less than saintly behaviour from Thomas, asked if he ever lost his patience with Gilbert. Hugh reported that ‘the strongest words he spoke were “Lord Earl, Lord Earl, say what you please about me, I will not let the rights of my church go by on account of your menaces”.’
A place of beauty in brokenness
Caerphilly Castle: the second largest castle in Britain, and surely one of the finest in Europe. Its size, layout, and extensive water defences cannot but impress us. What a vast quantity of stone was quarried and then carried here with difficulty to build it! What a huge amount of earth and rock was dug out and moved to create the lake and moat system! The investment of time, money and relentlessly hard labour produced something almost as perfect as a castle can be.
Yet today the feature that grabs our eye is the leaning tower, that broken corner of the castle that leans more dangerously than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. For all the perfection and brilliance of the rest of the design, the thing that stands out and is celebrated is the place where it has broken down. Perhaps we are like that. Our own brokenness is more precious than we think, and can bring beauty and interest to the world.
Lord, there are times when everyone else seems to be doing well and coping with life, and I feel broken and unstable. Help me to see that there can be beauty in brokenness, and that I may have special gifts to offer when I least believe it.
Along with its renowned leaning tower, visitors to Caerphilly Castle cannot fail to notice the flocks of geese and swans that inhabit the artificial lakes (moat). Among the huge numbers of Canada Geese (introduced in the seventeenth century) and red-breasted geese, visitors will be able to find the white and grey-feathered domestic birds that would have been familiar to the medieval inhabitants of the region. Geese played an important role in medieval husbandry. They provided meat and fat for cooking, as well as feathers for writing, materials for arrows and down for bedding. It seems fitting, therefore, that these animals should be so populous around this iconic medieval castle.
The Feast of Swans
Living alongside the geese, it is also possible to find a significant number of swans and cygnets. These birds have an even more poignant resonance with the castle of Caerphilly. Swans were a medieval symbol of love and also associated with one of the most important chivalric celebrations of the Middle Ages: the Feast of Swans. In 1306, Edward I was presented with two cooked swans at a feast in Westminster, in which he swore on the honour of the birds to undertake a Holy Crusade to Jerusalem. After the feast, Edward knighted 267 men, including his son – first English Prince of Wales, Edward of Carnarvon (Edward II) – and the future royal favourite Hugh Despencer, the owner of the royal stronghold of Caerphilly castle.
In 1326-27, Despencer and Edward II attempted to hold Caerphilly against a siege led by Edward’s queen, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. Visitors can learn more about the story of ‘The Lover, the King, the Villain, and the Queen’ and the Siege of Caerphilly inside the castle.
Specially-chosen music for this location from Hereford Cathedral, and a modern-day ambient soundscape of visitors in Caerphilly Castle.
Distance: Approx. 5.5 miles
Time: Approx. 2 hours
Access: Moderate difficulty; mostly gravel tracks and footpaths, some paved residential streets and some steep inclines; not suitable for wheelchairs and buggies; walking boots or suitable footwear recommended.
- Start your walk at Caerphilly Mountain car park on B4623. Take the path on the far left of the car park with your back to the road, following signs onto Caerphilly Common (The Warren on map). Keep to the right of the path, with a fence and buildings eventually on your right and trees to your left.
- The path bends to the left into the trees, gently sloping downhill to begin with, gradually becoming a steeper descent. Be aware of tree roots underfoot.
- As you clear the trees, the path will join at a junction of wider gravel tracks. Take the track opposite and slightly to the right, that continues down hill.
- The path turns to the left, with a gate to the right. Turn away from the gate and follow the path. At the next fork, take the path to the left, continuing to a gate and stile. Cross over the stile with a large hollow tree to your right.
- Follow the path out of the wooded area and into an open field, eventually to a kissing gate leading into a residential area. Continue along the residential road to the left (Warren Drive).
- Turn right and walk down hill along Mountain Road – on a clear day you will have a view of the Castle from here. Caerphilly Castle was built in the thirteenth century by the Norman Lord Gilbert de Clare. Pass by St Martin’s Church on the left and cross the road at the crossing onto Cardiff Road. The Castle can be accessed from here via Dafydd Williams Park.
- After visiting the Castle, turn back up Cardiff Road towards Caerphilly Mountain. Keep to the right side of the road, passing back past the church as the road turns into Mountain Road. As you clear the residential part of Mountain Road, you will see a marked footpath on your right, leading onto the Golf Course.
- The path will take you over a stone footbridge and then bends sharply to the left, following the yellow footpath arrows. The path goes up four steps and then slopes steeply uphill. At the next fork, keep to the left.
- At the next turning, turn right going uphill to the summit of Caerphilly Mountain, which will give you the best view of the town and castle.
- Turn away from the town and take the path on the left, heading down hill towards the B4623. Carefully cross the road and return to the car park to finish your walk.