Our Top 10 Castles of Wales!

With more historic fortresses per square mile than any other country in Europe, it is little wonder that Wales is known as the “Land of Castles”.  In fact, the mountains, borders and coastlines of this small but varied nation were once home to more than 400 forts; whilst many are vanished remaining only as ruins or earthworks, today there still exists more than 100 historic monuments, fortresses and manor houses.  And for the modern traveller they make for a trove of historic treasures just waiting to be discovered.  Here are our top ten Castles of Wales!

10. Carreg Cennen Castle

Carreg Cennen Castle
Carreg Cennen Castle

A site dating back to 1300, Carreg Cennen Castle makes for an impressive sight towering some 900ft on a limestone precipice overlooking the Preseli Hills on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park in mid-Wales.

9. Raglan Castle
Unlike many of the Wales’ other medieval Castles, this Norman fort has a unique design, styled to appear like an elegant French chateau.  But don’t be fooled, it still offered fierce defences with its hill-top position and moat tower.

8. Powis Castle

Powis Castle and Gardens
Powis Castle and Gardens

Dating back to circa 1200, this castle in mid Wales evolved over the following four centuries and today is home to exquisite interiors and antique collections to include paintings, sculpture, furniture and tapestries.  And all surrounded by stunning grounds of classic Italian and French-inspired manicured gardens.

7. Chepstow Castle
Chepstow Castle is an imposing border fort overlooking the scenic estuary of the River Wye in South East Wales; the town where JK Rowling grew up, it is possible to see how the fortress may have influenced her works of fantasy and potentially inspired parts of Hogwarts Castle.

6. Castle Coch

Castell Coch near Cardiff
Castell Coch near Cardiff

Commissioned by the 19th century coal baron, the Marquess of Bute, Castell Coch is far more recent than many of Wales’ forts and offers a stunning Victorian gothic-revival, fairy-tale castle of spires and turrets scenically set amidst thick woodlands on the outskirts of Cardiff.

5. Harlech Castle
A UNESCO World Heritage Fortress, Harlech Castle perches on a hill-top on the North Wales coast overlooking the Irish Sea and offers a unique history; originally constructed to oppress the Welsh the Castle later fell to Welsh ruler Owain Glyndwr who held a parliament here in the early 1400’s.

4. Caerphilly Castle

Caernarfon Castle
Caernarfon Castle

Second in size only to Windsor Castle in Britain, Caerphilly Castle near Cardiff covers a site of 30 acres and demonstrates sophisticated 13th century military design with concentric ringed walls and extensive water defences.

3. Caernarfon Castle
One of Edward I’s “ring of steel” around North Wales and with unique polygonal towers, Caernarfon is a beautiful and well-preserved 13th century fortress which received more recent notoriety as the venue of Prince Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969.

2. Conwy Castle

“One of the greatest fortresses of Medieval Europe” Conwy Castle today holds UNESCO World Heritage status.  Impressive and imposing, the fort remains linked to the Conwy town walls which almost completely encircle this beautiful medieval market town to this day.

1. Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle Interior
Cardiff Castle Interior

An utterly unique castle located in the heart of Wales’ bustling capital city of Cardiff and overlooking acres of open parkland, Cardiff Castle combines Roman history, a Norman Motte and a glorious mock gothic Victorian manor complete with clock tower and opulent living quarters.

To explore the beautiful landscapes, cities, coasts and castles of Wales why not do so on the Wales Explorer self-drive itinerary as featured on our website here.  You can add the CADW Wales explorer pass which offers free admission to dozens of castles and historic sites across Wales.

A History of Wales, in an Afternoon!

From ancient castles to stunning scenery, there is so much to see in Wales that you could easily spend a week or two touring here; however if you have a limited time-frame and want to see England and Scotland too, many people spare just a couple of nights to get their taste of Welsh culture, and head for Cardiff, the Welsh capital city.  If this is the case for you then make sure you visit St Fagans National History Museum.

Cardiff Castle, Cardiff, Wale
Cardiff Castle, Cardiff, Wale

I had been to St Fagans several years ago, but only recently re-visited when some family friends were in the area.  Upon arrival, I was instantly reminded that it is a museum with a difference – there’s no peering at fossils through glass here!  In fact it is Wales‘ leading open-air, living museum located in over 100 acres of its own beautiful parkland and gardens in the grounds of St Fagans Castle, a 16th century manor house, on the outskirts of Cardiff and a stone’s throw from Cardiff Castle itself.

St Fagans Castle, St Fagans Museum
St Fagans Castle, St Fagans Museum

St Fagans aim is to provide visitors with a history of Wales throughout the ages from the earliest Celtic settlements through medieval history to our more recent industrial heritage.  And it does this not through stuffy exhibitions but by allowing you to actually walk through some forty real historic buildings, each of which was originally constructed in a different era of Welsh history and in a different corner of the country but painstakingly moved and re-erected brick by brick in the grounds of St Fagans.  The fact you can enter these buildings, restored to how they would have originally appeared with superb attention to detail, allows you to literally step back in time and immerse yourself in what life was like for the people of Wales.

Ironworkers Houses, St Fagans
Ironworkers Houses, St Fagans

Some of the highlights include traditional farm buildings (complete with their own animals!), functioning watermills, peasant cottages, a chapel, a school and various Victorian period shops including an operational bakery which still offers local Welsh treats prepared using traditional methods.  My favourite attraction however was the row of terraced workman’s cottages, typical of those you’ll find in communities throughout the valleys of South East Wales to this day.  At St Fagans however each of these six tiny identical houses has been laid-out and furnished to a different generation since the beginning of the industrial revolution.  As you wander into each cottage, into their little gardens and vegetable patches and along the changing cobbled path you can literally walk through the ages from the early 1800’s right through to present day and get a glimpse of Welsh life from previous generations and see how it has changed in such a short time.

So if you find yourself on a time budget in Wales next Summer, head to St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff where you can experience centuries in half a day!

Celebrating Wales – St David’s Day!

What do leeks, small onion-like vegetables, and daffodils, beautiful glowing yellow flowers, have in common?  Well, quite a lot if you’re Welsh actually.

Wales Flag
Wales Flag – Welsh Dragon

Last Friday the little nation of Wales celebrated its National Day as it does every year on 1st March.  Whilst not as internationally well known as the celebrations of St Patricks Day, which come around just shortly afterwards, the festival of St David is celebrated just as vigorously by the Welsh, who are certainly a proud and patriotic bunch.  So who was St David and how do the Welsh celebrate?

A 6th century Welsh Bishop of Minevia, legend has it that St David made his way from Wales on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he was made an archbishop and returned home to become a renowned preacher and teacher setting up monastic settlements throughout the country.  His miracles include moving the earth itself as it rose up beneath him whilst he was giving one of his speeches.

Cardiff Castle, Cardiff, Wales
Cardiff Castle, Cardiff, Wales

Almost 900 years later, St David was pronounced a saint and today St David’s Day, which is celebrated on the date of his death, marks an unmissable highlight of spring-time in Wales.  Celebrations take place across the country in every town and village of this little nation but the centrepiece of the festival takes place in the capital city of Cardiff.  Here there are master-classes in Welsh culture and cuisine with language workshops of the ancient Welsh tongue and culinary expositions taking place offering tasty treats such as the traditional Welsh cakes, Cawl and Welsh Rarebit.  The hi

The Daffodil - National Symbol of Wales
The Daffodil – National Symbol of Wales

ghlight is a vibrant parade of red and yellow which marches through the city past the stunning Cardiff Castle and on to St David’s Hall.  Dancers and theatrical performers come together to create a grand spectacle showing off the symbols of Wales such as giant dancing red dragons, and children in the traditional dress of black chimney hats, frilly skirts and white shawls.  And of course no Welsh celebration would be complete without some fine Welsh music whether from the national orchestra, a rendition of the stirring national anthem, the traditional dulcet tones of

some of Wales’ world renowned male-voice choirs or some the country’s best known international divas such as Tom Jones or Shirley Bassey.

And of course the locals are out in force wearing their national symbols of Wales proudly on their breast – the lowly leek or the beautiful daffodil.

Forget St Valentine for Romance, think St Dwynwen!

People keep telling me that love is in the air at the moment as we approach Valentine’s day; but with the shops bursting with garish pink cards and florists trying to sell me bucket loads of roses at twice the usual price, for me, it’s just not happening…  Cupid seems less the god of love and more a plump little cherub attacking me with his bow and arrow and trying to steal my wallet!  So where do we turn for a bit of true romance instead of this plastic impersonation?  My suggestion is the lovely land of Wales!

Welsh Love Spoons
Welsh Love Spoons

In Wales we have an ancient tradition of the giving of love-spoons.  It may not at first sound particularly romantic, presenting your potential love interest with a kitchen utensil, but it is the thought and effort that goes in to them that provides the romance.  The age-old tradition is thought to have originated when sailors were at sea and would spend their lonely hours on board the ships meticulously carving and shaping these spoons from bits of wood whilst they lost themselves in thoughts of their loved-one at home.  Developing over the years from simple designs, many became skilled to achieve incredibly intricate carvings with a wealth of specific features which symbolized different meanings in their own relationships; everything from hearts and flowers to anchors, chain-links, wheels and key-locks can appear on a love-spoon.  After months of work the spoon would be presented to the loved-one, usually as the symbol of the start of a serious relationship.

St Dwynwen
St Dwynwen

Love-spoons are still given in Wales today and if you visit friends here, you will often see one hanging on the kitchen wall.  If you want to see carving in action let us know and we can point you in the direction of a fabulous family-run love-spoon workshop and gallery in Pembrokeshire, South West Wales.

Welsh myth is also bubbling with romance!  Forget St Valentine, we have St Dwynwen with St Dwynwen’s day celebrated on January twenty-fifth each year.  The legend goes that the prettiest daughter of a 5th century King, Dwynwen fell in love with a Prince named Maelon but the King had promised her marriage to another suitor.  Frustrated that he couldn’t be with his love Maelon forced himself upon her and she ran in to the woods to escape; as she fell asleep beneath the trees she was visited by an angel who granted her three wishes and told her that Maelon had been turned to ice for his wicked behaviour.

Llanddwyn Island, Anglesey
Llanddwyn Island, Anglesey

Dwynwen wished firstly that she would never marry, as her father wished her to, and that God would protect and meet the wishes of all true lovers.  For her third wish, she forgave Maelon and wish that he be thawed.  Dwynwen became a nun and a recluse setting up her own chapel on the remote island of Llanddwyn off the coast of North Wales and living out her days alone but for rare visits from star-crossed lovers.

So for a truly romantic trip, why not tour Wales; the nation’s majestic landscapes of dramatic mountains and untouched coastlines dotted with ancient castles offer the perfect romantic back-drop.  From Cardiff or Pembrokeshire, make your way to Anglesey in North Wales before walking hand-in-hand with your loved one across to the remote tidal island of Llanddywn and to the ruins of the very church where St Dwynwens stayed, and here you can present her with your love-spoon.  How’s that for romantic?  And not a tacky love-heart shaped box of chocolates in sight!

Top Five Tips for a Self-Drive Tour of Britain

We are often asked by our guests for some hints and tips for travel in Britain, especially for self-drive tours where you have lots of independence and flexibility.  I jotted down a few of these that came up in conversation this week with some our guests who are travelling this Summer and thought I would share them with you…

1. Bring your Own GPS and buy a map.

adeo Travel - Edinburgh Map
adeo Travel – Edinburgh Map

It may sound obvious but buy a map!  Request one and we can stick one in with your vacation documents or you can pick up a good British road atlas when you get here at most service stations and book shops throughout England, Scotland and Wales.  It’s worth the investment and will help when planning your daily route and act as a back-up if your GPS battery dies.  A sat-nav or GPS system is useful in each town/city especially when finding your specific hotel or B&B as you can punch in the exact post-code/zip code.  If you own one already then I would recommend bringing it with you; you can usually download overseas maps/programs in advance and most modern GPS systems are small and can be easily packed.  Bringing yourown will not only save you money on renting one here in Britain but can also save time as new and unfamiliar systems can be confusing – you don’t want to spend half an hour each morning working out how to program it!

2. Enjoy the Scenic Routes.

Self Drive Scottish Highlands
Self Drive Scottish Highlands

We know you want to get to your destination and a GPS will send you the most direct route, but we advise that you get off the beaten track.  Avoid the commuter traffic on the boring highways and get on the back roads where you can take in the scenery and where you’re more likely to stumble upon quaint villages and towns and sights that you weren’t expecting to find.  Particlularly in Scotland, scenic routes to certain destinations are well sign-posted.  Remember, when you’re on your holidays the journey should be just as enjoyable as the destination itself!

3.  Look out for the brown road signs.

Here in the Britain all of our visitor attractions, heritage sites and historic buildings are clearly signposted from major routes by road-signs with a brown background.  Knowing this can help you reach the sites you plan to visit but can also highlight places you didn’t even know existed but will be glad that you didn’t miss.

4. Fill up the car at a supermarket.

Edinburgh Tourist Route Sign
Edinburgh Tourist Route Sign

Gas (or petrol) prices in Britain are generally higher than many other countries so it’s a good idea to fill up in the most economical way possible.  Large supermarkets generally have gas stations and often provide the best priced fuel in the area.  If you spot one fill up there rather than at a highway service station and you’ll save several pence per litre of fuel – it may not seem like much but over the course of your trip you’ll make some savings.

5. Park and ride in to town.

Most of Britain’s major cities offer park and ride schemes whereby you can park in an out of town car-park (parking lot) and take a short bus ride in to the city centre.  This saves the high cost of city-centre parking and the stress of driving in city centre traffic.  Most towns and cities can then be explored on foot or by hopping on the local open-top bus tour which will take you to the major places of interest within the town.

If you have any of your own travel tips or things that you have found useful to know when driving in Britain why not leave a comment below?