On our anniversary weekend in Cardiff, we managed to visit Cardiff Castle, one of Hillmans Wonders of the World. We were entertained on our way there by the Animal Wall outside the castle. This outer wall is topped by many carved animals, with glass eyes to add some realism. We had fun trying to name them as we went along.
A Full Day Out
We arrived at the entrance to Cardiff Castle a couple of minutes after it opened at 9am, expecting it to be busy. However, there didn’t seem to be anybody about at all. We purchased our tickets for £12 each, and added a house tour at 10am for a further £3 each. We were told to collect our audio guides from upstairs, and explore for an hour before our tour. However, I suggested to Amy that we make the most of the empty castle grounds and get some photos. Particularly this one of us in the stocks with the Norman Keep behind.
In the audio guides area, Amy got the chance to dress up as a princess, which she always loves, and perform a dragon puppet show. After getting the audio guides, we actually decided not to use them yet. Instead, we continued the search of the grounds for great picture spots. There were loads of different vantage points that proved to be great photo backdrops. The fact that there were barely any people in them was even better!
Don’t skip the House Tour
Now it was time for the House Tour, so we headed up some stairs to wait. There were probably around 8-10 people on our tour, which was a lot less than one we saw later on. Therefore, I’d recommend the earlier tours. Our guide was quite young, and whilst he lacked much personality, he was very knowledgeable and clear. The castle apartments are unlike anything we’ve seen before. They were converted into an extraordinary Victorian Gothic fantasy palace by the famous architect William Burges for one of the world’s richest men in the late 1800’s. Although many of the rooms are open to visitors, the tour takes you into a number of otherwise off-limits rooms. These are well worth the small additional cost.
We started in one of these, the Winter Smoking Room. Straight away, you will be wowed by the opulence of the rooms. Even the door is exquisite. The ceiling is decorated with the signs of the zodiac, while the imposing fireplace is opulently painted and gilded. A hideous monster peers out from the ceiling of the entrance to this room. This is just one of many quirky features that show Bute (the rich man) and Burges as having a great sense of humour.
Look for the Invisible Prince
Next we went into the children’s Day Nursery. This delightful room is decorated by tiles depicting many characters from children’s stories. It includes an extremely clever design showing the Invisible Prince, whose shape is made out by the space left between the trees and a falcon. The figures on the chimney-piece warned the children against blowing their own trumpets too much.
One of the highlights of the apartments is surely the Banqueting Hall, which is in the oldest part of the building. This grand entertaining space is still used for weddings and events now, at £500 an hour hire fee. The NATO leaders, Royal Family, and even Nelson Mandela have all been entertained in here. The paintings around the walls show the medieval history of the castle, and the wooden ceiling reminded me of a ship. Carved wooden angels show Bute’s family tree, while the exquisite fireplace depicts the time when William the Conqueror’s son was imprisoned at Cardiff Castle. Amy particularly likes the fish carved into the wall, with its tail coming out further along the wall to create a 3D effect.
Next up was Lord Bute’s bedroom, up the stairs of the Bute Tower. This was decorated in honour of St John, and contains a wardrobe that looks like a confessional box, as well as a surprisingly small bed. This was because Bute favoured sleeping upright. He had an en-suite bathroom too, which we could see. The walls are covered in sculptures of angels, which supposedly watched him whilst he was sleeping to give him peace of mind. However, they would give most people nightmares, not peace of mind!
Is this Wales, or Rome?
Another highlight was the Roof Garden at the top of the Bute Tower. This is a Roman inspired feature with a cross-shaped pool, fountain, and open roof (now a plastic roof to protect the contents). Lavish decorations are everywhere you look, including on the stairways.
The Small Dining Room was used when there was no guests in the castle, yet was still sumptuously decorated. It has a dining table that features a hole in the middle for a grapevine to grow through, so that they could eat grapes directly from the vine! The bell push to attract the servants is a carved Howler monkey, another cool and quirky feature.
The tour then went into a rather plain in comparison Drawing Room, with portraits of family members, and a beautiful library, where the tour finished. There are lots of carved ‘British’ animals on the bookshelves here, and the furniture in here apparently cost a small fortune. Stunning carved statues above the fireplace depict five ancient languages. This is in honour of the fact that Lord Bute could speak over twenty languages himself. The tour lasted around forty-five minutes, and was well worth it.
The Audio Guide takes care of the rest
After the House Tour, we decided to start on the audio guide. Whilst it is designed so that you can play it in any order you fancy, we decided to try our best to do it in numerical order. This way we were less likely to miss anything. It started in the grounds, where we learned about Capability Brown, who designed Trentham Gardens. His efforts to beautify the Cardiff Castle grounds unfortunately resulted in him tearing down many historic buildings. Amy was starting to despise the man the more we heard about him, though I don’t think he did it maliciously.
We then headed down past the actual moat, which looked very deep and dangerous, to the North Gate. I can’t think of any other castle we have visited which still has water in their moat, so it was cool to see this at Cardiff Castle. The North Gate is a reconstruction done by Bute of the original Roman gate. It was done as accurately as possible at the time, yet some inconsistencies are now apparent. Bits of the original Roman wall are still visible though, even on the outside. The Roman stonework is identified by being outlined in red sandstone.
The Keep is a Keeper!
After listening to the audio about the Black Tower, which used to be joined to the Keep, we climbed the stairs to enter the Keep. There was a cool doorway in the Keep that Amy stood in whilst I took a picture from below. Inside the Keep was fascinating. Unlike its outer appearance, the inside is hollow and appears circular. However, it is actually twelve-sided. I climbed up into a large window where I got a great view of the other side of Cardiff Castle, and encouraged Amy to do the same, which she did. The high winds made it a bit scary up there though to be honest!
We then climbed the steep staircase to the upper floors of the Norman Keep, which featured very old graffiti on the walls. The top of the Keep gave great views around Cardiff, even on a miserable day like today. However, the wind made it less enjoyable up here. After we got down, I decided I should get a photo of me at the top of the steep staircase, while Amy was at the bottom. Awkwardly, all the people waiting at the bottom decided to stay there, until I had done my picture. This was nice of them, but I had assumed that they would follow me up and go in the lower door.
It’s in the city centre, so you can eat outside to save money
We then checked out the remains of the wall between the Black Tower and the Keep, and realised it was time for lunch. Cardiff Castle has a cafe, but I had heard it was expensive and not great, and that we could leave and re-enter as we saw fit. Therefore, we decided to nip out to get a cheaper lunch outside. We were back exploring the castle within half an hour or so of leaving. We had to leave our audio guides when we went out, so picked them up back when we returned.
The audio guide pickup location is by the Wartime Shelters, so we decided to do this one now, even though it wasn’t where we had left off. These were the Roman walls of Cardiff Castle. As they are so thick, they were used as air raid shelters during the war. They have recreated this brilliantly, with the beds that were set up, and a small soup kitchen. There are also wartime posters on the walls, including some brilliant ones to discourage careless talk. They depicted Hitler hiding everywhere from under a table to inside a painting! They also had a soundtrack playing all of the sounds, including the air raid sirens. We’ll Meet Again by Vera Lynn was playing. We found out on the way home that Vera Lynn turns 100 years old tomorrow. It is very atmospheric and well recreated.
Caves, poltergeists, and a walk along the battlements
One of the ‘rooms’ within the walls had stalagmites and stalactites growing, which we figured would be like a cave in many years to come. We came out by the North Gate, and headed over to the apartments. From outside, we listened to stories of past inhabitants, who told of growing up there and even poltergeists.
We didn’t go in at this point, but went back inside the interpretation centre. However, we found out that the advertised film show was no longer working, and instead went for a stroll along the Battlement Walk. It was a cool walk, though many of the walls were too high for us to see over easily. Plus, the weather was still miserable. A sculpture of the Abandoned Soldier was blowing so hard in the wind, that we feared it would come off. We came out at the same point by the North Gate that we had come out of earlier.
From here, we wandered across the grass to the Trebuchet. This is the large catapult type weapon that we have seen used at Warwick Castle. This one was used in a movie apparently. A woman asked if we wanted our picture taken together as I was taking one of Amy, and awkwardly I said no thanks. At the same time, Amy said yes please! They ended up taking our photo, and we took some for them too. This was our last outdoors stop, which was good as it was getting more and more rainy outside.
The most expensive room in Cardiff Castle
We headed back into the Cardiff Castle Apartments, where we headed up the stairs to firstly the Arab Room. This is the most expensive room in the castle, though the house tour misses it off. Wow, the ceiling in this room was unreal.
We headed through a couple of the rooms we had been on the tour though, such as the Banqueting Hall, and the Small Dining Room. Also, the Portrait Room and Library, where we had more freedom to linger and read some information sheets. They are printed onto hard plastic. There was another small room adjoining the entrance hall too that we were able to see for the first time.
Become a soldier at the Regimental Museum
The last part of the castle for us to visit, that isn’t included on the audio guide, was Firing Line: Cardiff Castle Museum of the Welsh Soldier. It seems that most castles we visit these days have a regimental museum, and Cardiff is no different. This one is very informative, with a handy route laid out on the floor with footsteps. We started off by answering some questions on an interactive machine, which was being replaced soon we were told. We also got to dress up in army clothes! My jacket looked very cool, but it was a bit small for me, so it wouldn’t fasten properly and was hard to get off!
The museum followed the regiment in chronological order, with many artefacts, including a zulu warrior’s spear, and items from the battle of Waterloo. They also have a display about the goat who is their mascot. Though it was fascinating, a combination of tiredness and having seen this sort of thing lots before, meant we spent around an hour and a half in here. You could spend longer. Having said that, I imagine that most visitors spend less time in the entire castle!
We left at around 4.45pm, which felt weird for us leaving somewhere like this before we have to. Despite its magnificence, the castle doesn’t do as much in the way of ‘things to do’ like say the Tower of London. I can easily see why it is a wonder of the world though, it was sensational!
Have you ever been to Cardiff Castle? Any other tips for our readers?