I visited Carreg Cennen Castle in summer 2012. It’s an awe-inspiring castle, blessed with one of the most spectacular settings of any fortress in Wales.
Carreg Cennen is perfectly perched on an old limestone crag – the southern side of which is a sheer cliff-face, falling into a dramatic oblivion.
The views from within the castle are equally breath-taking. Carreg Cennen is surrounded by rolling green hills, dotted with grazing sheep and chugging tractors.
When I visited in the summer, hay was being made while the sun shone – it was like a little scene of a British pastoral idyll.
A Castle in the Air: The Limestone Crag of Carreg Cennen
‘Carreg’ is Welsh for ‘stone’, and ‘cennen’ is the name of the small river that winds around the limestone outcrop where you find today’s castle.
The limestone cliff is raised dramatically above the basin of fields and winding river below. In fact, the cliff raises 100m above the floor of the valley – and the drop on the south side of the castle is terrifying, to say the least.
The reason for this dramatic setting is a little geographical quirk – it’s been formed by an unusual wedge of hardy limestone, surrounded by softer Devonian sandstone.
As the sandstone eroded, the limestone remained. It resulted an isolated cliff, a perfect place for a secluded castle. Attempting to invade Carreg Cennen castle would have been a strategic nightmare. But, as history shows, it wasn’t an impossible task…
Another Castle of Born of Battles Between Welsh and English
Pretty much all the castles in Wales are linked to the activities of one man – the ferocious King Edward I of England, who fought to gain control of Wales.
Unlike his more famous castles in North Wales, however, the first structures of Carreg Cennen were actually laid by the Welsh. The first castle was built on this site by a Welsh prince, Rhys ap Gruffudd, in 1197.
Edward wrestled the castle into his control in 1277, and much of Welsh-made foundations were destroyed to make way for a more modern fortress – and it’s these remains you’ll see today when you visit.
These fortifications were constructed by the Gifford family – likely without the input of King Edward, who is never documented to have visited the site.
Carreg Cennen castle was built in earnest in the intervening years between 1277 and 1322 – the year when it was passed on from the Gifford family. The mighty inner ward – the most recognisable section of the castle, complete with the rounded North West Tower, which is pictured above – was built first.
The barbican (over which, nowadays, runs the wooden entrance-bridge) was a later addition to the castle, which was added to improve its defensive potential during the early c14th.
The walls of the outer ward, which curiously surround the well (it’s this area which would fall first in a siege – denying those inside of any water), were added a little later.
Despite so many layers of protection – and that sheer drop on the one side of the castle – the English occupants of Carreg Cennen actually fell to the Welsh revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr in about 1407.
Subsequently, unlike many other castles in England and Wales, the castle’s intentional destruction (slighting) did not come during the English Civil War – it was in fact some years before, in 1471, that the Yorkist forces destroyed the castle to prevent any Lancastrian uprising.
Carreg Cennen Castle’s Rare Breeds Farm
Because the castle is privately owned (see more on this below), it neighbours a rather unusual attraction – a historic rare breeds farm. The farm buildings include a 1880s farmhouse; the small, attractive stables (nowadays the cafe); and a pretty farmyard with a small pond.
The historic, rare breeds on the farm cry out for a photograph or two. The most arresting are the long-horned cattle, which graze the slopes around the castle (most visitors from the USA mistake them to be Texan Longhorns – that’s not the case).
The cattle are often joined by super-fluffy antique breeds of Welsh mountain sheep.
Exploring the Cave Beneath Carreg Cennen Castle
Any adventurous visitor with decent shoes will be irresistibly drawn towards Carreg Cennen’s secret cave.
This pitch-black, natural fissure runs through the bedrock beneath the castle. It’s made all the more mysterious because modern-day scholars haven’t quite figured out exactly what the cave was used for, back in Medieval times.
Reaching the cave is a dramatic descent in itself. You climb down steep steps which run along the south side of the castle, slowly descending alongside the cliff. Once down the steps, a steep, low, vaulted corridor leads you down to the cavern where the cave begins.
The cave burrows about 50m into the rock beneath the castle, and, after a few steps, you’ll realise that its darkness is pitch-black. You’ve absolutely no chance without a torch (you can rent one at the entrance-booth, so be prepared!).
As you explore deeper and deeper, the cave becomes more and more cramped and uneven, until it finishes in a small hollow, where the passage becomes too small to follow further.
Although the cave’s a natural part of the geography of the castle, Medieval builders tried to reinforce and support its walls – which you can see nowadays, in the vaulted roof. Why go to the effort? That’s a bit less clear.
When exploring the cave, you’ll notice a small stream running through the fissure – perhaps all this effort was to secure a supply of water. But that’d be a bit unusual, because there is a well at surface level.
Perhaps the cave was to be used as an armour-store, or for some more occult purpose we haven’t quite understood. However, we do have evidence one use – a dovecote was once placed at the mouth of the cave, embedded in the cliff-edge.
Visiting Carreg Cennen Castle Today
Carreg Cennen is actually privately owned. Interestingly, the castle was an accidental purchase by the Morris family during the 1960s (sadly I’m not related – my surname is Morris, too).
When purchasing the farmland surrounding the castle, a discrepancy in the deeds meant that they accidentally gained ownership of the castle in addition to the farm. What a bonus!
Although the castle is owned by the modern Morris family, it’s managed by Cadw – the Welsh heritage organisation, who look after the day-to-day running. Because they look after other Welsh castles, they can apply their knowledge and learning to Carreg Cennen Castle, too.
If you’re planning on visiting the castle today, you’ll struggle to get there unless you’ve got a car – this area of west Wales is pretty remote. You need to head for the village of Trap; the castle is easily signed as you approach.
You probably need a few hours to tour the castle and grounds; and it’s definitely worth stopping at the gorgeous tea-room at the farm below.
The surrounding countryside, as I’ve mentioned before, is incredible – there are numerous surrounding walks and pathways in the surrounding Brecon Beacons which are definitely worth exploring.
If you’d like to explore other nearby castles in Wales, Raglan Castle is a few hours drive away. It’s a spectacular late Medieval castle that was developed into a glorious Tudor palace. But today, all that remains are ruins. . .