Caerphilly Castle – One of the Mightiest Castles In Europe

Caerphilly Castle – One of the Best Castles in Europe

Caerphilly Castle is formidable – it’s the largest castle in Wales, second largest in the UK and one of the most imposing in Europe.

It’s also one of the most beautiful and picturesque castles, a medieval behemoth softened a little by its surrounding lakes, which were a difficult barrier indeed for would-be attackers.

And yet it has always been rather off the beaten path. So what’s the story?

I must confess to a tiny bit of bias with regard to Caerphilly Castle, as I was born and brought up within ½ mile (1 km) of it. I would see it every morning on the way to school, towering high above the 1960s housing estate where I lived.

However, with bias comes intimate knowledge, and also perspective. I’ve visited hundreds of castles across Europe and the Middle East and live just down the river from mighty Prague Castle – yet it’s a struggle to think of even a handful that top Caerphilly.

Hands down it’s one of the best two or three castles in South Wales, quite possibly the pick of the whole lot.

And it’s one of the top four or five of all Welsh castles. Throw in 750 years of aura and mystique, a menagerie of smoke-breathing dragons, and a ghostly Green Lady, and it’s possibly time to take a look at Castell Caerffili – Caerphilly Castle.

Caerphilly Castle Highlights – What To See

Image of Caerphilly Castle wales at sunrise
Dawn at Caerphilly Castle
  • Walk the circuit of the Castle to appreciate its size – and take in some gorgeous views
  • A summer or autumn sunrise over the castle from the lake on the west side (see image above)
  • Climb the Gatehouse Tower for an awesome view over the Castle
  • The Dragons’ Lair – approach with care!
  • The Leaning Tower
  • Explore the magnificent Great Hall, which is sometimes used for medieval banquets

Facts About Caerphilly Castle

Image of Caerphilly Castle reflected in its moat
Caerphilly Castle on a glorious summer evening
  • It’s the second largest castle in Great Britain after Windsor Castle in England
  • The total area of the castle is 30 acres (12 hectares)
  • It’s one of the first castles in Britain (Kenilworth was probably the very first) to be built in a concentric style
  • Caerphilly was also one of the first castles in Britain to deploy water defences, with lakes surrounding most of the site
  • It was a Norman-built Castle, built to defend the area against the incursions of Welsh Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd
  • It saw action and regular use until the late 15th century, after which it fell into disrepair
  • Much of what you see today is medieval fortification, but some parts of the interior – including the Great Hall and de Braose Gallery
  • It has also featured in several Doctor Who episodes
  • It is owned by the State and operated by Cadw, the historic monuments service of the Welsh Government

Caerphilly Castle History

Image of Caerphilly Castle at night in snow
Caerphilly Castle in winter

Caerphilly and South Wales were on the frontline of ongoing battles between invading Norman lords and native Welsh leaders for around 200 years after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Cardiff Castle had been built in the 12th century, and there were several other smaller castles between Caerphilly and Cardiff, including the predecessor of the modern Castell Coch (often anglicized to Castle Coch in speech) and Castell Morgraig on the escarpment overlooking Cardiff and the coast).

Norman lord Gilbert de Clare wanted to secure his land to the north of Cardiff, so wnen about building Caerphilly Castle in 1268.

He chose a site in the flat part of a ‘basin’ surrounded by hills on all sides, close to the hostile cantref (lordship) of Senghenydd.

He was concerned about the threat posed by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd , the last Prince of Wales. The first version of the Castle was destroyed by Llywelyn, but it was quickly rebuilt, reaching completion by the early 1270s.

Image of Caerphilly Castle at night
Caerphilly Castle at twilight

Caerphilly Castle withstood attacks in 1295 and 1316, and was refuge to the soon-to-be-deposed king Edward II in 1326.

It was besieged afterwards, and this was lifted in March 1327 when the two sides reached an agreement.

Thereafter it was turned into a highly desirable and prestigious residence, as the Great Hall and Apartments in the Inner Ward show.

However, by the late 15th century the Castle was showing signs of serious neglect, and it gradually fell into ruin.

The 1st Marquess of Bute acquired what was left of the Castle in 1776, and the long process of restoring the site began, lasting until well into the 20th century.

Caerphilly Castle Leaning Tower

Image of the inner ward and leaning tower at Caerphilly Castle
Caerphilly Castle’s famous leaning tower

Caerphilly Castle’s leaning tower leans further out of the perpendicular (around 10°) than its more famous counterpart in Pisa.

The story we were told in our school barely 100 metres from the Castle was that the damage was caused by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War, possibly with the aid of gunpowder.

Another possibility is that it partly toppled because of stone being removed from it for use elsewhere.

The Van Manor House (now restored) on the hill 1 km to the east of the Castle was built in the 16th century, funnily enough of similar stone, and it’s plausible that the builders used the Castle as a conveniently close quarry.

Caerphilly Castle Dragon:

Caerphilly Castle has improved considerably as a visitor attraction in recent years, as more of it has been opened up to explore.

The highlight is the Dragon’s Lair, which has opened up in the last three years, in a previously unused pit in the outer ward of the Castle.

It’s home to the Cadw family of dragons, including Dewi, whose nostrils flare and emit smoke. It’s wonderful for kids, as is Gilbert’s Maze, an interactive trail around the Castle.

Places To Eat In Caerphilly

Image of Caerphilly Castle Wales
Caerphilly Castle from the Court House pub beer garden

The Court House pub has a beer garden at the back, with a stupendous view of the Castle. It’s a great spot for a beer or glass of wine. I don’t know what their food is like nowadays – it used to be fairly standard pub classics.

The best restaurant in Caerphilly is at the top of the town a two-minute walk from the station. Volare, on the corner of Clive Street, is a great Italian place run by two Calabrian guys.

Are There Any Other Things To See In Caerphilly?

There’s not much else to see in the town, but there is more to explore in the surrounding area. The Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk is an old favourite of mine, and takes in Caerphilly Mountain and nearby Eglwysilan Mountain in its 28 mile (45 km) circuit.

For history lovers. I’d also recommend Llancaiach Fawr, a 16th century fortified manor house near the village of Nelson, a few miles to the north of Caerphilly. It’s a living history museum

with actor-guides in character, and it is forever 1645, in the middle of the English Civil War.

Where Is Caerphilly, Wales?

Caerphilly is a town seven miles (11 km) north of Cardiff, the capital city of Wales. It’s 43 miles (&0 km) from Swansea, the second largest city in Wales, and 12 miles (18 km) from the city of Newport. It’s 149 miles (240 km) west of London.

How To Get To Caerphilly Castle

Image of Caerphilly Castle in Wales at dusk
Caerphilly Castle is very easy to reach

Caerphilly is one of the most popular day trips from Cardiff, and it’s easy to reach by public transport, especially from Cardiff, from which trains leave every 15 minutes most days of the week.

Trains for Caerphilly (the final destination is often Rhymney or Ystrad Mynach) depart Cardiff Central station platform 6, and also call at nearby Cardiff Queen Street station three minutes later.

The journey from Cardiff Central takes 18 minutes. It’s a 7-8 minute downhill walk from the station to the entrance to the Castle.

Regular buses also run from Cardiff to Caerphilly, but they are nowhere near as convenient as the train. They take 40-45 minutes, passing through the village of Tongwynlais on the way.

If you’re only travelling by public transport, you can accomplish a castle double-header, stopping at Tongwynlais to visit Castell Coch in the morning, then catch the onward bus (from down in the village, number 26, hourly) onto Caerphilly. Or vice versa, of course.

Caerphilly is easy to reach by road. If you’re travelling from Cardiff, follow the A469 north over Caerphilly Mountain, then turn right downhill on the B4600.

The designated Caerphilly Castle parking site is on Crescent Road (well signposted from all directions), a ten-minute walk from the Castle entrance.

There is also a more convenient short-stay car park right opposite the Castle in the town centre.

Otherwise, Caerphilly is close to the M4, and can be reached via junction 28 (take the A468) or from junction 32 (take the A470 north towards Merthyr Tydfil, then right up the hill on the A468.

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David Angel
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing Europe for over 25 years.  His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.