2 – 4 June

CASTLE #1: CARDIFF CASTLE

Cardiff Castle and its vast swathe of parkland can be found in the very centre of  the city of Cardiff, with roads and shopping malls obligingly removed to the periphery as locals go about their business. Not many people stop to gape at this impressive, walled fortress, even when one of the resident peacocks atop the ramparts hollers its astonishment, silhouetted against the twilight. I can assure you, I most definitely gawked as this regal bird fluffed its plumage and announced the splendour of the castle within.

The castle site has seen over 2000 years of successive occupation. From simple beginnings as a Roman fort in approximately 55 AD, then a Norman motte and bailey castle, it’s now an exuberant, Neo Gothic fairytale palace. From 1766 to 1947, the Castle was owned by the Bute family who embarked on an extensive restoration of the mansion in the castle grounds. The Butes called in the best of the best: Capability Brown to overhaul the gardens and Henry Holland to modify the mansion and add a few extra wings for good measure. This all took a bit of time, so the first and second Marquesses of Bute were long in the ground by the time the structural work had been completed. When the third Marquess was old enough to assume his title, he had quite an inherited fortune and lots of time on his hands. Thus he decided the place could do with even more jazzing up. He employed the famous architect William Burges, threw plenty of money at him and gave Burges the freedom (16 years of it) to produce a fantastical, other-worldly palace.

Burges happily complied, incorporating a combination of painted murals, stained glass panels, mosaics, intricate wood carving and metalwork into his vision for the Palace. It’s a vision that draws inspiration from Gothic, Renaissance, Islamic and Byzantine styles, all playfully combined within the various added spires and towers of the Palace. Because the Palace is truly, staggeringly enormous, I’ve picked a couple of my favourite rooms: the Arab Room, the Banqueting Hall and the Library.

The Arab Room

A dazzling gold leaf, tiered geometric hanging ceiling dominates this impressive room in one of the towers of the Palace. The walls are adorned with numerous niches and lavish friezes. A shisha pipe and a tumble of cushions is all you need to add for an instant harem (sign me up, please).

The Arab Room ceiling. Image courtesy of http://www.victorianweb.org

The Banqueting Hall

In addition to the quirky small rooms that abound in each of the towers, the palace contains some down-right grand open spaces. The Banqueting Hall is crowned with a stunning wooden ceiling complete with carved angels, while the walls are covered with brightly painted murals. Burges wasn’t a fan of wasting any space. This wouldn’t be a bad spot for the next Smith family Christmas (just sayin’).

Banqueting Hall. Image courtesy of http://www.victorianweb.org

The Library

A long, elegant room lined with bookcases and window seats designed for leisurely reading, the Library is a light, open space. If you look more closely, it’s also host to a playful menagerie of small carvings nearly hidden amongst the panelling of the shelves, along door frames and embedded in the furniture itself. There are birds, monkeys, platypuses and all sorts of other animals. Needless to say, I loved it.

Platypus on a bookshelf in the Library. Look how cute that monotreme is!
Image courtesy of http://www.victorianweb.org

Outside the Palace, the old Norman keep is the surviving part of the original castle built in 1081. It’s in the middle of the grounds and left by the various Marquesses of Bute as a nice little cultural feature. Who doesn’t like to have a motte and bailey castle in their backyard? Beats the pants off a flimsy gazebo.

Add to all of that some tall, thick, crenellated ramparts and you have an impressive homestead. After several centuries of living the palatial life, the Butes very kindly decided to share the Castle with the public – the fifth Marques donated the Castle and grounds to the people of Cardiff in 1947.

CASTLE #2: CASTLE COCH

Firstly, NO, it’s not pronounced “cock.” Get your mind out of the gutter.This is yet another marvel produced by the third Marquess of Bute (the one with all the money) and the architect William Burges (the one with all the ideas). It was designed as a bit of a weekender for the Marquess and his family, but they didn’t end up using it very often. Nevertheless, Castle Coch is a gorgeous little fairytale castle high up in the forest on the outskirts of Cardiff. Like the Palace at Cardiff, it is superbly decorated and very much over-the-top.

With  a drawbridge and portcullis this castle is the real deal. Burges restored it from the original castle ruins on the site (circa. 13th century), but took considerable poetic license in his re-imagining of the interiors. My absolute favourite room was the Drawing Room. The centrepiece is a lofty, domed ceiling decorated with all types of painted birds. At the apex of the dome is a glittering, gold-leaf sun.

Castle Coch.
Drawing Room, Castle Coch. Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com
Detail of the domed ceiling, Drawing Room, Castle Coch.
Image courtesy of http://www.pontydocs.co.uk

But you’ll never guess the coolest thing about Castle Coch. It was used for the filming of “The Worst Witch.” Remember Mildred Hubble and Ethel Hallow? The terrifying Miss Hardbroom? It was an early 2000s classic TV show. You know you watched it….and loved it.

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