Of all the places to visit in Pembrokeshire, the region’s great castles are always incredibly popular. As a natural point of attack on the west of Britain, perhaps it is inevitable that so many fortifications were constructed in Southwest Wales over the ages. Thankfully, today’s invaders tend to arrive armed with cameras and picnics, rather than swords and siege engines.
Indeed, if other Welsh tourist attractions could be said to have “heritage”, our national castles tend to have “previous”. These were seats of power where bloody sieges, rebellions and power struggles ensued; these properties changed hands by the cannon and the sword rather than a nice six figure valuation by a friendly estate agent.
Castles in Wales are endlessly varied in their nature. Some are splendidly bleak, war-scarred ruins; other, later constructions were built more for show rather than the rigours of battle (although in a strange way this remains one of the chief aims of any castle: “look at how powerful and wealthy I am!”). However, each and every castle is unique in a totally different way to other properties. Our beautiful hotel near Tenby has a fascinating history all of its own, while guests are also ideally placed to discover the region’s former seats of power. Here are some of the best that you can visit:
Tenby Castle (Location: SA70 7BP) Originally built: early to mid 12th Century
Not to be confused with the later fortifications of the main town, “Tenby Castle” refers to the original fort and defences on the headland at Castle Hill. This must have been a natural vantage point, presenting a commanding view and attackers a tough task. Today, it is largely ruined- although the tower still stands, alongside sections of a curtain wall, rather smashed up due to the battles between the Welsh and pesky Norman invaders. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating site- and while we have limited space here, Tenby Museum is an excellent place to find out more about the site.
Pembroke Castle(SA71 4LA) Originally built: 1093
Standing at a mighty seventy-five feet high, this dramatic structure overlooks the Cleddau Estuary and is a wonderfully dramatic hunk of Welsh history. Starting out as a Norman Motte and Bailey castle, it grew into a bigger, more formidable beast altogether in the 1100’s and beyond, with various powerful owners adding features such as a great hall, round towers and a twin towered gatehouse. With walls up to five metres thick, it must have been a truly formidable defensive structure, complete with arrow slits and a wooden fighting platform to repel attackers.
Pembroke Castle was attacked by Royalists during the English Civil War, but withheld thanks to the arrival of Parliamentarian reinforcements from Milford Haven. However, the top brass at the castle switched allegiances towards the end of the war; a stupid move because it led to Oliver Cromwell himself ordering its sacking. Not only were the leaders executed, but Cromwell ordered the castle to be decimated, even encouraging locals to come and steal the very stone from its walls. It remained in a sorry state for many years, until a great restoration plan by Sir Ivor Philipps in the 1920’s and the rest, as they say, is history. Today it is a fabulous place to visit with various exhibits and activities. For full details see the official site: pembroke-castle.co.uk
Castle Trivia: Pembroke Castle is the biggest in Wales.
Picton Castle (SA62 4AS) Originally Built: Late 13th Century
Another stately looking castle with a history that is (quite literally) bloody intriguing, Picton is fascinating place to visit near Harverford West. It is also significant in Welsh history because national hero Owain Glyndyr joined the French to sack the place during his heroic but ultimately doomed attempt to revolt against the English, who ruled Wales at the time.
In the more peaceful present day, Picton is renowned for its beautiful gardens, named as one of the “Magnificent Seven” best gardens in West Wales. It is well worth a visit from any time between the end of March and Late October, when it is also a focal point for events such as craft fairs and exhibitions. See the site for full details: www.pictoncastle.co.uk
Trivia: Owain Glyndyr, the man who successfully took Picton Castle, remains the last Welshman to hold the title “Prince of Wales”.
Carew Castle (SA70 8SL) Originally Built: 1270
Situated in a naturally strong defensive position on the River Carew, it is believed that there have been fortifications on the site for over 2000 years. An interesting melange of castle features and eras, it has a barbican and dry moat, but also Tudor sections added much later, such as a long room and beautifully styled period windows.
Another rare feature of the castle is that, unlike so many, it is that it is still in the keeping of the original family (the Carews) to this day –although they lost it during hard times and had to buy it back years later. Today it is one of the best loved sites in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, with a historic mill and extensive tidal pond in addition to the castle. For more details on visiting times and highlights, click here.
Kidwelly Castle (SA17 5BQ) Originally Built: Circa 1275
A lesser well known but similarly dramatic place to explore, Kidwelly Castle has some unique features and fabulous views over Kidwelly town for anyone who ascends the south west tower. Originally started in the early 13th Century, this is another castle with mean defences and a history of conflict. Owain Glyndyr himself, for example, couldn’t crack this particular nut with the help of the French, even though they succeeded in taking the nearby town. Had he been alive in the present century, he could have got in with his wife and kids, bought ice creams and still had change from a twenty-pound note. To check opening times or check details of current guided tours, call 01554 890104.
Trivia: If a Welsh speaker mentions the “Hen Gastell” they mean the “old castle”.
Laugharne Castle (SA33 4SA) Originally Built: 1116
Another rather unsung gem, this is another terrific place to visit. Built in the 12th Century, smashed about, burned, rebuilt, added to and later turned into a lavish mansion, the place has an interesting history to say the very least. It also has some fascinating features, including a stone dome and . The castle’s most celebrated resident must be Dylan Thomas, however, who found the place a secluded and inspiring place to write. The castle is open from April 1st to 1st November- call 01994 427906 for further details.
For other castle resources: www.castlewales.com