Ever since I was a little girl this castle has been known as ‘the tooth-fairy castle’, every time I drive home down the M4 and over the River Taff, a cursory glance to the right renews imagination- this beautiful fairytale castle.
Earlier in the year I took the opportunity to visit with my children, to introduce them to the castle that I hoped would spark their imagination. As the girls has just finished learning the about the Legend of Gelert so their imaginations soared, no matter how many times I tried to bring the history of the Bute’s to life.
Castell Coch (‘The Red Castle’) is located above Tongwynlais in South Wales. The original castle was built by the Normans after 1081 to protect Cardiff and to control the Taff. The castle was abandoned shortly after, and the land and its ruins were acquired by the Marquesses of Bute in 1760. The 3rd Marquess of Bute, John Crichton-Stuart, inherited the castle in 1848. With a keen interest in architecture and a substantive wealth, the Marquess employed the architect William Burges to reconstruct the castle using the medieval base as the inspiration. Burges rebuilt the outside of the castle, but died before completing the interior. Due to the impracticalities of the castle- the rural retreat lacked guest accommodation, little use was made of the residence, and in 1950 his grandson, the 5th Marquess of Bute, placed it into the care of the state.
Castell Coch now makes a fantastic day out with children. The Castle Grounds provide plenty to entertain little ones, perfect for den making and picnics, and in our case- muddy puddle jumping.
It is the inside of the castle which allows little people to tread new ground, to understand a little of history and to let their thoughts unfold as winding staircases and grand rooms intrigue.
Walking across the drawbridge to reach the Gatehouse you look up to a glazed statue of the Madonna and Child sculpted by Ceccardo Fucigna. The castle comprises three circular towers- the Keep, the Kitchen Tower and the Well Tower. The three towers lead into a small oval courtyard that sits on the top of the motte, cantilevered galleries and wall-walks run around the inside of the courtyard. The buildings, including the Hall Block, the Gatehouse and a shell wall, reflect the original motte in stone.The Keep contains the Castellan’s Rooms- The Hall, the Drawing Room, Lord Bute’s Bedroom and Lady Bute’s Bedroom form a suite of rooms that exemplify the High Victorian Gothic style of 19th century Britain contrasting with the exterior of the castle deliberately imitating the architecture of the 13th century.
The Banqueting Hall occupies the whole of the first floor of the Hall Block. It features stencilled ceilings and murals which resemble medieval manuscripts.
The octagonal Drawing Room occupies the first and second floors of the Keep. The eye is drawn to the fireplace featuring the Three Fates, the trio of Greek goddesses who are depicted spinning, measuring and cutting the thread of life. The ceiling’s vaulting is carved with butterflies, reaching up to a golden sunburst at the apex, while plumed birds fly up into a starry sky in the intervening sections. Around the room are panels depicting unique plants with a mural showing animals from Aesop’s Fables. Carved birds, lizards and other wildlife decorate the doorways.
Lord Bute’s Bedroom, sited above the Winch Room, is relatively small and simple, reflected by changes to the original plan for the Drawing Room. The bedroom does not feel as ornate as other rooms in furniture or decor.
Lady Bute’s Bedroom comprises the upper two floors of the Keep is every inch what a child would imagine of a princesses room- or perhaps Rapunzel with the coffered, double-dome ceiling that rises up into the tower’s conical roof. The room is circular, with the window embrasures forming a sequence of arches around the outside. It is richly decorated, with love as the theme, displaying carved monkeys, nesting birds and pomegranates.
Above the fireplace is a winged statue of Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul, carrying a heart-shaped shield which displays the arms of the Bute family. The bedroom is Moorish in style, a popular inspiration in mid-Victorian interior design.
One part of the castle which catches you off guard after the grandiose of the Keep is the Well Tower.
Whilst Burges initially proposed a circular projecting timber gallery, or hourd, around the top of the Well Tower, this was revised in 1877 with the hourd abandoned and replaced by conventional parapets. On the topmost floor, a chapel was to be constructed, with a little timber-framed dormer projecting over the battlements. The chapel was built and a photograph of about 1878 shows it in place removed at some time in the 1890s.
Although the structure of the chapel was dismantled and disposed of, the 20 stained glass windows were saved. Ten of these are now at Cardiff Castle; most of the remaining panels, acquired by Cadw, have been conserved for display at Castell Coch.
The central panel of Christ in Majesty was flanked by panels containing individual saints and martyrs. A reduced version of the original arrangement is reproduced in the Chapel, echoing the design of the original chapel dormer.
Exploring the interior of Castell Coch providing as much fun for young explorers as it does for those interested in understanding more of how this wonderfully red castle found its way to being.
With a room focused on allowing younger children to understand the makings of the castle, as well as lots of other rooms for exploring, Castell Coch is definitely worth a first, and repeat visits.
Now in the care of Cadw, more about the castle and opening times can be found on the website