Continuing with my theme that it’s well worth exploring places nearer home, last week we stumbled upon an absolute delight of a castle less than twenty miles away.
This is what I love about our latest project – all our ‘from castle’ routes are within an hour’s drive of Rhiwderin and, so far, not one of them has been a disappointment, in fact the opposite.
What I had not anticipated was discovering one of Gwent’s hidden gems at the beginning of our walk – Usk Castle itself.
Over the past few weeks I’ve visited a lot of castles and, without exception, all have been pretty impressive structures in lovely surroundings.
That said, Usk Castle is something else.
It’s entirely exquisite and enchanting, although tucked up a narrow lane opposite the fire station, it’s all too easy to miss. I’ve visited Usk many times over the years and walked along its busy main street completely oblivious to the delightful ruins standing just metres above me.
The castle’s own leaflet describes it as ‘a jewel of a Norman Castle that witnessed the Battle of Usk but by 1536 “… the castle there hath bene great, stronge and fair…”(Leland)’.
Great and strong, probably; fair, absolutely resoundingly so. Usk has to be the prettiest castle we’ve visited so far this summer (and we’ve now completed thirteen walks for our forthcoming e-publication, Walks from Castles: Gwent and the Marches, so I’m beginning to possess some authority on the subject of castle aesthetics – though unfortunately not on their histories!).
The minute you approach the eclectic entrance you sense Usk Castle is somewhere very special. For a start, there’s the Elven Lady – just one of the many impressive large wooden sculptures by Adam Humphreys that are dotted around the castle gardens.
Though his website doesn’t actually state this, I’m guessing that Adam is the son of the castle’s owner, Thomas Humphreys (the name is a bit of a giveaway). Whatever his ancestry, there’s no denying this young man is very talented with a chainsaw; my particular favourites are the oak sculptures of the dogs, Gelert and Glyndwr (though at £800 apiece I’m afraid they’re well out of my souvenir price range).
But back to the castle entrance where there’s plenty to interest you visually; the crown sitting on top of the arch for a start and all the little rickety out-buildings. The pay booth isn’t manned; these good-natured folk rely on the honesty of visitors to drop £2 each into a locked tin. You are also instructed to take one pebble per person from an upturned pot and place it into an adjacent bowl – this is how visitor numbers are monitored (presumably statistics are a must for grant applications).
At this point you pass the large Castle House on the left where the Humphreys family lives and if you’re inclined to do so, might pause to gaze at their wonderful garden full of flowers, Adam’s carvings and various ornamental bits and bobs. In the bright morning sunshine, I wanted to just stand and stare, to absorb every last detail of this wondrous place.
I was already bowled over by the eccentricity of it all and we hadn’t even entered the castle grounds proper.
We climbed the steps to the Keep and went inside – I wasn’t disappointed. I won’t go into the history of the castle here… I’m not an expert and there’s plenty of detailed information elsewhere on the internet, e.g. on my favourite castle site (where there are also lots of great photographs).
The Inner Ward isn’t exotic in the same way that Tresco is but there’s something about the way the flowers (clematis?) cling to the centuries-old Great Keep, the topiary cross in front of the Treasure Tower and the free-standing gate pillars in the middle of the lawn that made my heart fit to burst. It was all so timeless and beautiful… and a tribute to the decades of restoration work carried out by the Humphreys family who bought the now Grade I listed Castle House for £525 in 1925 (what a bargain!) and were determined to breathe new life and purpose into the castle ruin in the grounds.
Rather than put their feet up and enjoy their magnificent views across the Usk valley, the amazingly foresighted Rudge Humphreys and his family embarked on years of tough physical work and excavation which have culminated in the stunning castle grounds that we see today.
We wandered around, climbed the steep steps of Garrison Tower and tottered across a very vertiginous section of stonework (not one for the children) before taking a closer look at Treasure Tower, which dates back to 1289 and is so-called because it housed the revenues of Gilbert de Clare, who led an unsuccessful attack into southern Wales under Edward 1.
Sadly, despite my inclination to linger, time was pressing on and we had a very long walk ahead of us (and a long-lost farmhouse to find) so we reluctantly said goodbye to one of the prettiest places we’ve visited in a long while and set off up the hill.
There’s a lot more to say about Usk Castle, about its history and it’s current activities – you can get married there, for instance – but it’s all well-documented elsewhere on the internet.
If you ever find yourself in the Usk area, I’d encourage you to walk up that lane opposite the fire station… you won’t regret it!