Caerphilly Castle is formidable – it’s the largest castle in Wales, second largest in the UK and one of the most imposing in Europe. It’s also one of the most beautiful castles in Europe, a medieval behemoth made picturesque by its surrounding lakes.
And yet it has always been rather off the beaten path. It’s never quite had the profile of Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech in North Wales, and yet Caerphilly Castle preceded them by 10-20 years, and probably influenced them to some extent. It’s unquestionably one of the best two or three castles in South Wales, quite possibly the pick of the whole lot.
Our Caerphilly Castle guide delves into the history of this great medieval fortress, and provides all the information you’ll need on how to get there and what to see, as well as special events at the Castle. It’s also packed with local tips – this is my ‘home’ castle, as I grew up a just 5-minute walk from it.
Caerphilly made me a castle lover for life, and it’s one to savour. It’s one for castle connoisseurs and kids alike, and I hope you get some of the enjoyment from it that I have.
Why Visit Caerphilly Castle
Caerphilly is one of the outstanding medieval castles in Britain and Europe, leading the way in its concentric design (with ‘layers’ of walls and defences) and use of water defence.
It’s a wonderful adventure for the family, with smoke-breathing dragons, medieval weapons and plenty of towers to climb and passageways to explore.
Caerphilly Castle is also famous for its leaning tower, which leans further out of the perpendicular than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
It’s also one of the great landmarks in Wales, and indeed the UK, its enormous size second only to Windsor Castle in the British Isles.
Caerphilly Castle History
Caerphilly and the historic county of Glamorgan were on the frontline of ongoing battles between invading Norman lords and native Welsh leaders for around 200 years after the Norman Conquest of 1066.
Cardiff Castle had been built in the 12th century, and there were several other smaller castles between Caerphilly and Cardiff, including the predecessor of the modern Castell Coch (often anglicized to Castle Coch in speech) and Castell Morgraig on the escarpment overlooking Cardiff and the coast).
Norman lord Gilbert de Clare, the 7th Earl of Gloucester, wanted to secure his land to the north of Cardiff, so he set about building Caerphilly Castle in 1268.
He chose a site in the flat part of a ‘basin’ surrounded by hills on all sides, close to the hostile cantref (lordship) of Senghenydd.
He was concerned about the threat posed by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last Prince of Wales. The first version of the Castle was destroyed by Llywelyn, but it was quickly rebuilt, reaching completion by the early 1270s.
Caerphilly Castle withstood attacks by Morgan ap Maredudd in 1295 and Llywelyn Bren in 1316. It then served as refuge to the soon-to-be-deposed king Edward II in 1326.
It was besieged afterwards, and this was lifted in March 1327 when the two sides reached an agreement.
Thereafter it was turned into a highly desirable and prestigious residence, as the Great Hall and Apartments in the Inner Ward show.
However, by the late 15th century the Castle was showing signs of serious neglect, and it gradually fell into ruin.
It is believed to have been used as a quarry by local builders, including Thomas Lewis who built the nearby Van Manor House in the 16th century.
We don’t know the cause of the lean of south-east inner ward tower – it may have been from quarrying, but other possible reasons include subsidence and destruction by Parliamentarian forces during the Civil War.
The 1st Marquess of Bute acquired what was left of the Castle in 1776, and the long process of restoring the site began, lasting until well into the 20th century.
Caerphilly Castle Facts
Caerphilly Castle is the second largest castle in Great Britain after Windsor Castle in England, with a total area of 30 acres (12 hectares).
It’s one of the first concentric castles to be built in Britain (Kenilworth was probably the very first)
Caerphilly was also one of the first castles in Britain to deploy water defences (Kenilworth Castle was probably the very first), with lakes surrounding most of the site. Caerphilly’s water defences are largely intact, where as most of Kenilworth’s have drained away.
It was a Norman-built Castle, built to defend the area against the incursions of Welsh Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, also known as Llywelyn the Last.
Caerphilly Castle saw action and regular use until the late 15th century, after which it fell into disrepair
Much of what you see today is medieval fortification, but some parts of the interior – including the Great Hall and de Braose Gallery – have been restored.
Caerphilly Castle has also featured in several Doctor Who episodes and in numerous TV series, including Wolf hall, and movies such as Restoration.
It is owned by the State and operated by Cadw, the historic monuments service of the Welsh Government
Caerphilly Castle – A Personal Recollection
The lottery of life sent me to the Welsh Valleys town of Caerphilly, separated from the capital Cardiff by seven miles and a steep mountain. And it happened that I had one of the best castles in the UK right on my doorstep.
I couldn’t see the Castle from my house, but I only had to walk 100 yards or so down the street and through an alleyway to see it looming high above the rest of the 1960s housing estate where I grew up. I would see it every day in my way to school, and seeing it inspired me to seek out much more of the world. In later years, it would also be the subject on which I first cut my teeth as a photographer in the mid-1990s.
Caerphilly Castle Highlights – What To See
Caerphilly Castle Circuit Walk
Walk the circuit of the Castle to appreciate its size – and take in some gorgeous views. Start at the south-east gatehouse, continuing west along the pathway around the moat where you’ll often see people feeding the ducks and geese.
Go right along the wooden footbridge, continuing clockwise along the pathway parallel to Crescent Road. The rear gate of the castle is sometimes left open, and you can walk this way along the inner shore of the moat towards the ticket office.
However you’ll enjoy better views of the Castle if you continue past the small wood on your right. You then lose sight of the Castle for a short time, as you cross Nantgarw Road and turn right. After 150 metres you can cross back over the road and enter the Castle grounds through a gate.
You then follow the paths around the moat, passing the North Dam, the imposing outer east gatehouse and South Dam before returning to your starting point. The whole circuit takes 25-30 minutes.
Caerphilly Castle Leaning Tower
Caerphilly Castle’s leaning tower leans further out of the perpendicular (around 10°) than its more famous counterpart in Pisa.
The story we were told in our school barely 100 metres from the Castle was that the damage was caused by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War, possibly with the aid of gunpowder.
Another possibility is that it partly toppled because of stone being removed from it for use elsewhere.
The Van Manor House (now restored) on the hill 1 km to the east of the Castle was built in the 16th century, funnily enough of similar stone, and it’s plausible that the builders used the Castle as a conveniently close quarry.
Watch A Stunning Sunrise Over Caerphilly Castle
The view from the west side of the moat (along Crescent Road) at dawn is one of the most beautiful sights in Wales.
It rises to the left of the Castle in spring and summer (May to August) then in October clear mornings often bring mists to the lake, as the sun rises behind the hills to the right of the Castle.
Climb the Gatehouse Tower for an awesome view over the Castle
Caerphilly Castle’s famous leaning tower
The Gatehouse Tower – which houses an exhibition on the history of the Castle – also commands an outstanding view of the Inner Ward of Caerphilly Castle.
There is an outstanding view over the bridge connecting the Outer Ward and Inner Ward, with the Leaning Tower to the left and imposing towers to its right. It’s a great vantage point for appreciating the water defences of the Castle, the first concentric castle in Wales, and how difficult it would have been to breach them.
Caerphilly Castle Dragon
Caerphilly Castle has improved considerably as a visitor attraction in recent years, as more of it has been opened up to explore.
The highlight is the Dragon’s Lair, which has opened up in the last three years, in a previously unused pit in the outer ward of the Castle.
It’s home to the Cadw family of dragons, including Dewi, whose nostrils flare and emit smoke. It’s wonderful for kids, as is Gilbert’s Maze, an interactive trail around the Castle.
Caerphilly Castle Great Hall
The vast Great Hall is one of the outstanding features of Caerphilly Castle. It has an enormous fireplace, and is sometimes used for medieval banquets and wedding receptions.
Caerphilly Castle Fireworks And Other Events
Caerphilly Castle is a superb setting for a firework display, and one is normally held each year around Guy Fawkes Night (5th November).
It tends to be held on the Saturday closest to November 5th, starting at 7pm. Check the Caerphilly Castle webpage beforehand – there are plenty of places to watch the fireworks all around the moat.
Son et lumière (sound and light) performances are also held in the inner ward of the Castle, with images projected onto the walls of the towers and Great Hall.
The Castle has also been the backdrop for stages of the Tour of Britain cycle race, with riders completing two circuits of the Castle, town centre and the beastly mountain climb at the end of a long stage through Wales.
Places To Eat In Caerphilly
The Court House pub has a beer garden at the back, with a stupendous view of the Castle. It’s a great spot for a beer or glass of wine. I don’t know what their food is like nowadays – it used to be fairly standard pub classics.
The best restaurant in Caerphilly is at the top of the town a two-minute walk from the station. Volare, on the corner of Clive Street, is a great Italian place run by two Calabrian guys.
Are There Any Other Things To See In Caerphilly?
There’s not much else to see in Caerphilly town centre, but there is plenty to explore in the surrounding area.
One of the easiest things to do in Caerphilly is the short, easy Caerphilly Mountain walk. It’s less than a ten-minute stroll from the Caerphilly Mountain Snack Bar, at the junction with the A469 and the B4263 CAerphilly Mountain road.
Caerphilly Mountain is on the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk is an old favourite of mine, which also takes in nearby Eglwysilan Mountain in its 28 mile (45 km) circuit.
For history lovers. I’d also recommend Llancaiach Fawr, a 16th century fortified manor house near the village of Nelson, a few miles to the north of Caerphilly. It’s a living history museum with actor-guides in character, where it is forever 1645, in the middle of the English Civil War.
Caerphilly is also close to several other places to visit in the South Wales Valleys. A half-hour drive or direct bus ride on the 120 takes you to the Rhondda Heritage Park in Trehafod, where you can learn about the life of a South Wales coal miner underground (tip from a tall person: duck).
Where Is Caerphilly, Wales?
Caerphilly is a town seven miles (11 km) north of Cardiff, the capital city of Wales.
It’s 43 miles (70 km) from Swansea, the second largest city in Wales, and 12 miles (18 km) from the city of Newport.
It’s also 149 miles (240 km) west of London.
How To Get To Caerphilly Castle
Cardiff To Caerphilly Train
Caerphilly is one of the most popular day trips from Cardiff, and it’s easy to reach by public transport, especially from Cardiff, from which trains leave every 15 minutes most days of the week.
Trains for Caerphilly (the final destination is one of Rhymney, Ystrad Mynach or Bargoed) depart Cardiff Central station platform 6, and also call at nearby Cardiff Queen Street station three minutes later. Check out the Transport for Wales website
The journey from Cardiff Central takes 18 minutes. It’s a 7-8 minute downhill walk from the station to the entrance to the Castle.
Cardiff To Caerphilly Bus
Regular buses also run from Cardiff to Caerphilly, but they are nowhere near as convenient as the train. They take 40-45 minutes, passing through the village of Tongwynlais on the way.
If you’re only travelling by public transport, you can accomplish a castle double-header, stopping at Tongwynlais to visit Castell Coch in the morning, then catch the onward bus (from down in the village, number 26, hourly) onto Caerphilly. Or vice versa, of course.
Caerphilly Castle Directions By Car
Caerphilly is easy to reach by road. If you’re travelling from Cardiff, follow the A469 north over Caerphilly Mountain, then turn right downhill on the B4600.
Otherwise, Caerphilly is close to the M4, and can be reached via junction 28 (take the A468) or from junction 32 (take the A470 north towards Merthyr Tydfil, then right up the hill on the A468). The parking area is well signposted as you approach the town.
Caerphilly Castle Parking
The designated Caerphilly Castle parking site is on Crescent Road (well signposted from all directions), a ten-minute walk from the Castle entrance.
There is also a more convenient short-stay car park right opposite the Castle in the town centre.
Otherwise, Caerphilly is close to the M4, and can be reached via junction 28 (take the A468) or from junction 32 (take the A470 north towards Merthyr Tydfil, then right up the hill on the A468.
David Angel is a Welsh, photographer, writer and historian who has been travelling and photographing Europe for over 30 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, Condé Nast Traveller, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.
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