When I was at university, I penned a short story about a history post-graduate who found herself locked in one of the towers at Castell Coch overnight, the victim of a jealous cleaning lady. The Welsh-language ramblings of the latter were translated, from English, by my eldest daughter, then around eight years old.
It probably wasn’t my finest creative hour and, understandably, my Welsh-speaking lecturer, himself the author of several acclaimed novels, was less than impressed with the Welsh dialogue. The graduate is eventually rescued by a handsome young man, undoubtedly a prince, who hears her cries from far below (aagh, did I really write this drivel?). My 1990s update of the Rapunzel fairytale hasn’t survived nearly twenty years of house and computer changes but its inspiration – Castell Coch – remains one of the most recognisable landmarks in South East Wales.
In his excellent book, Welsh Castles, Adrian Pettifer, describes it as ‘the perfect castle of make-believe’ and goes on to explain ‘the existing structure is mainly a romantic reconstruction of Victorian times’.
He’s right; this is a castle straight out of a fairytale. Its three towers are clearly visible as you drive east on the M4 motorway and I can imagine how a small child, bored rigid on a long car journey, might suddenly spot Castell Coch up there on the mountainside and believe that there really is a princess locked away in its tower.
Like Cardiff Castle, Castell Coch (literally ‘red castle’) was the brainchild of Victorian architect William Burges, working once again under the patronage of the Marquess of Bute. In contrast to Cardiff Castle, there was little left of the original medieval building when Burgess began work. While Burges was careful to follow the plans for the original castle where known (all three towers were constructed on medieval foundations), the most striking features are the product of his imagination. As Pettifer notes, the conical roofs of the towers are more reminiscent of French architecture than British.
I remember taking my older daughters (now in their twenties) inside the castle many years ago; unsurprisingly, we all loved its Victorian grandeur, or as Pettifer so aptly puts it, ‘the spectacle’.
Of course, Harri and I weren’t at Castell Coch to admire its baronial hall or galleried drawing room; we were planning and checking another of our castle walks, this time for the Newport and Cardiff book. (And if you’re wondering when these ebooks are ever going to be available for sale, I can assure you that we’re nearly there. The whole ebook formatting experience has been a little more complicated than we initially imagined – all those devices and platforms – but hopefully it won’t be long now before our first two hiking ebooks will be available).
From Castell Coch, we climbed up a short but steep path to join The Taff Trail. This is familiar walking territory for us and, on long, summer days, we’ve occasionally walked from here all the way home to Rhiwderin.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough daylight hours on a mid-December Sunday for long hikes (besides, the routes in our castle ebooks are intentionally all circular) so we left the main trail and walked over Craig yr Allt where there are extensive views up and down the Taf Valley. Sadly, the sprawling and ever-increasing retail and commercial units at Nantgarw completely spoil the immediate view below but the distant vistas (towards the Bristol Channel) make the steep climb worth the effort.
Across the valley is Garth Hill, the inspiration for a lesser-known Hugh Grant film called The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. The film’s writer (and director), Chris Monger, was born in Taff’s Well and his screenplay is based on a story told to him by his grandfather about locals’ attempts to increase the height of their ‘mountain’ from 984 feet to the qualifying 1,000 feet demanded by early twentieth century cartographers. His grandfather was spinning the young Christopher a yarn, of course, but the film’s main ‘character’ is a beautiful hill/mountain and one I look forward to exploring one day.
Our seven-mile walk was over too soon and we ate our lunch in the car at Castell Coch. That’s what I hate about the British winter: the days are too short for long walks and there’s nowhere to sit down to eat without getting a wet bottom!