Carew Castle: Jewel of Pembrokeshire, West Wales
Carew Castle is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque castles in the UK.
This spell-binding ruin is tucked away in rugged, rural Pembrokeshire, West Wales. Pembrokeshire itself is a stunning national park: filled with craggy shorelines and fluffy puffins.
Carew Castle, however, is the jewel in the crown of this incredible region.
The castle boasts going on 2,000 years of history. It was founded as a Medieval fortress and developed, during Tudor times, into a grand palace.
I visited the castle in August 2014 and I’d encourage you to discover it for yourself. It’s breathtaking.
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An Overview of Carew Castle and the Reflective Millpond
Carew - which is pronounced care-ooo, if you were wondering - was founded alongside a river of the same name.
This river was dammed during the 1500s, leading to the picturesque millpond which lies adjacent to the castle today.The dark grey stone reflects beautifully against the still, shimmering millpond. Carew really is one of the most picturesque Welsh castles.
It’s possible to walk around this millpond (something which I’d strongly recommend!), and you’ll obtain a new, breathtaking view of the castle from each angle.
The Northern side of the castle, which faces the millpond, was a luxurious new wing built in Tudor times. These extravagant rooms boasted vast windows, and enjoyed tremendous vistas across the waters of the lake.
The side of the castle which faces away from the millpond (towards the road, by which you approach) is the oldest section, dating to the Medieval period.The Medieval entrance and gatehouse to the castle. Note the banners with the raven motif...
This part of the castle has a very different character. It’s built for defence, with small, austere windows, and an impressive gatehouse.
In late Medieval times, this fortified section was strengthened further with the addition of the two mighty North West and South West drum towers - two tall sentinels which would have helped protect the castle in times of attack.
Let’s delve a little deeper into the Medieval history of these parts of Carew Castle.Flags flutter in front of Carew Castle.
Exploring the Medieval Sections of Carew Castle
The very oldest section of Carew Castle is - appropriately enough - the Old Tower. This is a stocky, thick stone tower, which would have been surrounded by wooden fortifications. It was probably finished in about 1100.The Medieval sections of Carew date to around 1100.
Nowadays, it’s tricky to make out the exact form of the Old Tower, because it was incorporated into a series of state-of-the-art new Medieval defences, completed in around 1300.
These structures were commissioned by an Englishman - Sir Nicholas de Carew. In the late 1200s, King Edward I of England had conquered Wales - and the Welsh people.
To cement his control of Wales, Edward built a string of formidable castles in the North of the country. Sir Nick was one of the most loyal men in his army, so King Edward allowed him to build a mighty fortress in South Wales - to help keep the rowdy Welsh in check.These two mighty drum towers exemplify the Medieval strength of the fortress.
Sir Nick was ambitious, and the two formidable Drum Towers on the Western side exemplify his ambition - and the new strength of the castle.
But Sir Nick also sought to make the castle a more luxurious place to live. Behind the Drum Towers lies a 80ft long Great Hall - a perfect spot for entertaining noble guests.The ruinous Great Hall - once a truly noble and luxurious room, although it's the present home to a lot of rare bats....
Transforming Carew Castle into a Luxurious Tudor Palace
As England and Wales entered the genteel age of the Tudors, there was less practical need to reside in grand fortifications. Instead, these buildings could be adapted and converted into grand palaces - places to host other nobles, and to reflect one’s importance in society.
In the 1480s, Rhys ap Thomas was the owner of the castle, and added some modern and luxurious touches to its fabric.Notice the elegant, light stone window in the centre of the photo. This was added to the existing grey stone towers during the Tudor period.
These included adding delicate Tudor windows into some of the most austere Medieval towers - a kind of eccentric plan, although you have to admire the ambition.
Sir Rhys also organised a grand jousting tournament at the castle (already a bit of an anachronism, seeing as Medieval times were over).
His emblem was the raven, and you can spot flags bearing the image of the raven as you explore the fortress today.
The Newest Fashion: The Elizabethan Long Gallery
In 1558 - the year that Elizabeth I became Queen of England - Carew Castle was passed to Sir John Perrot.The grand mullion windows, which were added during the Tudor period.
Sir John was, it’s alleged, an illegitimate son of Henry VIII. He came into possession of Carew, and added the grand North Range - that spectacular selection of rooms which overlooks the millpond.
To make the North Range, Sir John needed to destroy a section of Medieval curtain wall. Once he’d done this, he formed a series of grand rooms, capped with an Elizabethan Long Gallery.
In Carew Castle, this would have been a 150ft chamber along the stop storey of this new wing.
Its windows would have afforded incredible views across the millpond below. Inside, noble guests could meet and wander through its length - gazing at the scenery beyond the expensive glass windows, or at the lavish paintings on the other side of the hallway.Look at the fin-shaped base to this tower. I know I spend too much time thinking about castles, but these are quite unique to Wales and the Welsh borders. I can only think of two other castles with a similar design - Goodrich and Caerphilly.
Carew Castle in the Paintings of Turner
The shape of Carew Castle is particularly famous as it was one of a handful of castles painted by JMW Turner, during the 1790s.
Turner was one of the great Romantic painters, fascinated with images of the impermanence of human achievement in the face of the rugged longevity of the natural world.The majority of the internal rooms of Carew are ruined - eroded by time, with their stone plundered by locals.
After the English Civil War in the 1640s, parts of Carew Castle were slighted (intentionally destroyed). Other parts fell into natural decline; and some other walls were intentionally dismantled, with their stones used by locals in their own building projects.
Turner painted a series of images of Carew Castle, each illustrating its gentle decay and decline against a backdrop of the rolling, enduring, rural Wales.Built for both strength and luxury, the thick stone walls of Carew have endured well to this day.
Visiting Carew Castle and Tidal Mill Today: Tips and Info
You’ll need a car to reach Carew: like everything in beautiful Pembrokeshire, the location’s pretty remote.
The day-to-day running of the castle is undertaken by the Pembrokeshire National Park, rather than by the Welsh Heritage Body, Cadw.Just to prove I really visited the place! The beautiful Tudor window (centre, light stone) is much more attractive than my face...
This might partly be because - rather unexpectedly - the castle is a haven for bats. Bats love the dark corners of the castle, and swoop out to feed on insects upon the millpond during the early evening.
In fact, Cadw Castle is home to one of the rarest species of bat in the whole of Britain - the Greater Horseshoe.
It’s even possible to take part in a Bat Walk around Carew Castle, during some mild summer nights.
If you won’t be here for an evening, though, you’ll have a pleasant afternoon wandering through the castle and then around the adjacent millpond. This is the place to take some great photos of the fortress.
At one end, you’ll find the Tidal Mill. This is an eighteenth century mill which was powered by the dammed, tidal millpond. Today, its machinery is still intact, and you can buy an entry ticket which includes castle admission.One of my favourite Welsh recipes - bara brith. It's a moist, tea-flavoured fruit loaf.
Next door to the Tidal Mill, you’ll find a very cute (seasonal) tea-room in the front room of an old farm-house. It offers home-made treats, such as Welsh cakes (flat, pancake-like cakes, cooked on a griddle and sprinkled with sugar) or brilliant bara brith (a moist Welsh fruit loaf, flavoured with tea, and served with butter on top). Super tasty.
Discover more cunning plots, dusty legends, and tales of England's most beautiful castles...
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What exactly was so terrifying about Medieval machicolations?
And was it a terrible accident, or was Lady Amy Dudley murdered?
If you'd like to delve into these mysteries - and discover many more - you'll love my first print book, Exploring English Castles.
In the words of the American Library Association, it's a 'big, luscious book'.
It's filled with stories, secrets, fables and photos, and runs to 272 pages with more than 200 colour photographs.
It's available from all good bookstores in the US, Europe, Canada and Australia.