As parking (particularly in a motorhome) is impossible in Cardiff, we got up early and drove to Bridgend to take the train to Cardiff, hoping that we’d make it there by 9am so we could be the first through the door into the castle. Cardiff Castle – donated to the city by the fifth Marquis of Bute post WWII – is well worth the entry fee, provided you pay the additional nominal sum to get the house tour. Part of the outer wall of the castle is original Roman walls, nicely outlined in red sandstone by the 3rd Marquis who wanted people to see the Roman sections easily. He discovered them when excavating the tall mound of grass at the edge of his property where he planned to build ‘proper’ castle walls. Basically the second Marquis of Bute made a fortune or three in coal mining, canal ownership, and then owned the entire port of Cardiff for good measure. The third Marquis went to town spending the money, taking the small Norman keep plus grounds and creating a massive site with Capability Brown designed gardens and a massive manor house/castle along one wall. The fifth Marquis donated the castle to the city, not because he’d run out of money as is usually the case, but for the greater good. The family still features on the UK’s wealthiest list, a rare example of an aristocratic family who thrived in the industrial age and maintained their income.
The Norman keep in the centre is fascinating, perched up on a 12m high mound of earth, surrounded by a real moat that is 6m deep. Ruined in the English Civil War, the keep fell into disrepair until the Bute family of Scotland took over. They left the keep alone, and built a new castle around it.
The house tour is mind blowing purely due to the scale of spending that went into creating it. Every room is ornately decorated with gold leaf, and purpose made painted tiles, much of them with religious messaging. The rooftop gardens is all in Hebrew, while there is an Arab room, as well as a long dining room, and small family dining room. The childrens day room is decorated with fairy tales, while the gentlemen’s smoking room is covered in zodiac signs, as well as time symobology. The fireplace in the gentlemen’s room is all about romance, with a frieze and the latin words saying “Love conquers all. Let us yield to love.”
The library is designed both to be useful, and to show off, being situated next to the Georgian era drawing room. Books such as Burke’s Peerage, collections of old scientific journals, encyclopedias, newspaper, Cardiff council papers in bound leather, and novels such as all the Charles Dickens, all the Waverley novels, all the Jane Austen, Balzac, PB Shelley, etc.
After the house tour, we meandered the gardens while the opulence seeped into our conscious. There is seriously so much to see on that tour that it takes some time to just let it all settle. We ended our visit with a wander through the castle walls, seeing which parts were used as air raid shelters during WWII.
We took the train back to Bridgend, then drove for an hour or so until we got to the Botanical Gardens of Wales. We made it just in time for the birds of prey aerial show. Apparently barn owls, while technically birds of prey, have silly brains and are difficult to train and work with. The owl we saw deftly illustrated this by flying off into a tree and disappearing for five minutes. It eventually came back. The highlight of the show were the dual red kites that swooped and flew, catching food while in mid-flight.
The botanical gardens has a huge glasshouse that contains plants from arid nations, including plants from Western Australia which was a strange disconnect to see, and made us all a little homesick. “We have this one in our garden.” “Remember this one from when we lived in Perth.”
Back into the truck, and another hour on the road took us all the way to the tiny town of St Davids at the western edge of Wales. Crazy to think that we’ve driven the entirety of the lower section of wales in only two hours driving – this place is so small. We found a campsite on the edge of a cliff, Caefil Bay. The wind up here is so strong, it sounds like a jumbo jet engine is attempting to push us off the cliff into the sea. The truck is being buffeted about, rather disconcerting.
We walked a mile up the road to the township for dinner at The Bishops. After so many lunches on the road and in pubs, we banned burgers and chips for the night, and forced everyone to try something else. No1 and No4 had pasta, No2 had smoked fish with a side of corn, and No3 had soup and bread. I had the fish pie, while Mr Engineer had Welsh rarebit (cheese sauce made with beer on toast).
And don’t forget – if you want to read fiction about the Victorian era (the same time that Cardiff Castle was getting its opulent make over), my latest book, In Pursuit of a Bluestocking, comes out 12 October.