Saturday, June 9, 2012

Wales Diary, Cardiff Castle

—for Hilary and her mother

My first attempt to breach the walls of Cardiff Castle didn’t work out quite as planned.  When I returned from walking the barrage, it wasn’t yet 6 o’clock, and the sun was still out, so I thought, why not hop over to the castle and take a look?  The hotel’s front desk staff recommended a taxi over the bus, and I thought, OK, just this once.  I’ll figure out public transportation after I’ve had a proper night’s sleep.

I’d failed to consider that the castle wouldn’t be open to visitors after 5 PM.  A taxi back seemed a bit excessive, so now the question was to find a bus that went to Cardiff Bay.  I walked up to a commuter as she strode by and asked if she might know.  “I don’t know anything about buses to Cardiff Bay,” she replied.  “I always take the train.”  And so it was I learned there’s a train that does absolutely nothing but shuttle back and forth between the center of Cardiff and Cardiff Bay.

The next day was properly gloomy and threatened rain.  I climbed aboard my newly found commuter train to Cardiff proper, followed the very fine sign posts, and lo, the castle was exactly where I’d left it the day before, and, indeed where it has stood, albeit in various incarnations, for the last two thousand years.

I signed up for the “premium tour,” which I figured was as good as any place to start (with the advantage that the tour was inside the castle, where it would be dry).  Our knowledgeable and witty guide led us through several rooms, each decorated within a millimeter of its life.

The castle, we learned, had undergone several major renovations, perhaps the most appalling of which was by ‘Capability’ Brown.  As part of his renovation scheme, he “cleared away the Lodgings of the Norman Knights,” “stripped the Keep of its ivy and cut down all the trees growing on the ancient mound,” and, get this, “filled in the moat.”

How can anyone even think of living in a castle without a proper moat?

The third Marquess of Bute, in between speaking the twenty-one languages he knew like the back of his hand, reversed course, at least in part.  The moat was back, though chiefly, with money to burn, he turned the castle into a Gothic Revivalist fantasia par excellence.

The rooms were one after another over-the-top, and it was good entertainment to view them, no doubt about that:

Here's the Marquess of Bute's bedroom.

What kind of dreams would he have with this going on overhead?

This ceiling, if I've got it right, is in the family dining room and  intended as a copy of the Alhambra.

And here's the ceiling of the Arab room. Wouldn't you get a permanent crook in your neck with all that time spent looking up?

Queen Elizabeth II has done some entertaining in the banquet hall.  Our guide advised the castle is happy to entertain any comer to rent it out (for the right price, of course).

For a bit of fresh air, there's the top of tower garden room (though, actually, no fresh air anymore, as they've had to put up a roof to keep out the elements).

The detail everywhere made it impossible to know where to look, like this alcove with a monkey up to no good.

Or these five scholars in the library, each with a tablet in a different language, one of which, we were told by the in-resident expert on the subject, consisted of runes.

The thing that was most castle-like to me, though, was the unadorned keep. Here I could sense some history without being overpowered by unending evidence of extravagance and wealth.  Here, in days gone by, even the most posh of castle residents were forced to withdraw in time of war.

The rain came on while I stood, and I, too, was forced to withdraw, though, in my case, only to the cafe for a cup of tea and a sandwich of Welsh cheddar and laverbread (which I thought a type of bread, silly me as it turned out).

As we perused postcards, a fellow visitor told me something about the castle I’d so far missed finding out:  corridors under its battlements housed air-raid shelters in World War II.

The fellow in the cafe told me something else, as well.  Chamberlain, whose unhappy task it was to declare war on Germany at the time, served as MP for Birmingham Edgbaston from 1937 to 1940. The current MP for that constituency is Gisela Stuart, née Gisela Gschaider in Velden, Bavaria, West Germany.

Of such things, perhaps Wisława Szymborska put it best, in Reality Demands:
What moral flows from this?  Maybe none.
But what really flows is quickly-drying blood,
and as always, some rivers and clouds.

Listening List

Benedictus, from John Metcalf's Plain Chants

© John Metcalf.

For a Spotify Playlist of the music of John Metcalf, click on Wales Diary. Metcalf is the Artistic Director of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music, which occasioned my visit to Cardiff.


This is the second in a five-part series entitled Wales Diary.  The first part, Cardiff Bay Barrage, can be found here.  The third-fifth parts can be found at these links:  The Covered Streets of Cardiff hereArt and the Aquabus, here, and From Celtic Village to Castle Gardens here.

A three-part series of posts on the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music concerts I attended while in Wales, including listening lists, can be found at these links:  Crossing a Bridge of Dreams hereAncient Instruments, Timeless Sounds here, and Worlds Entwined here.

For considerably more sensible and well-researched information on castles, I recommend Hilary's Positive Letters . . . inspirational stories . . . site and her A to Z on castles.  A good starting point can be found here.

Credits:  The quotations about Brown's renovations can be found here.  The quotation from Reality Demands can be found at Friko's Poetry and Pictures here.


Rubye Jack said...

What an amazing place. I think I would be bothered with all the excess if living there though. Like that would ever happen. Ha. But this looks like one of the more interesting castles to visit. We should rent out the dining room for a blog get-together at the end of summer.

Anil P said...

Lovely narrative. The castle looks imposing in the first picture.

The ceilings are decorated rich.

Of renovation, there's every bit to be scared of, for it's never clear what folks are upto when they declare they're going to renovate some heritage sight, something I'm all too familiar with back here. At times, after the 'renovation' the original is nowhere to be recognised.

John said...

Hi Susan,
I visited Cardiff last year and was looking forward to visiting the castle, but I was rather disappointed. The castle was just too `new`, that and the exorbitant entrance fee made me refrain from going inside!
Glad you enjoyed your visit.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
Cardiff Castle is quite extraordinary. One is never too sure whether to love it or loathe it. But, whatever one's view, it is certainly of interest.

Oh, life's little ironies which we so love - Chamberlain and Gisela Stuart who, as it happens, is very well known to us!!

Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

Your tour looks like SO MUCH FUN!!!! The opulence in the castle is stunning. So over the top but, really, isn't that what you hope to see in a famous castle? Fantastic! I would have such a crick in the neck just looking at those remarkable ceilings... and all that grandeur, and yet his bed was teeny-tiny!

Had no idea what laverbread was so I googled it - a "gelatinous paste" made from seaweed??? Did you eat it? Was it as horrid as it sounds?

I think you must lead a most amazing life. Good for you!

Scott said...

"to guide our feet in peace" Benedictus. Awesome. I like how it builds then kind of mellows out and then the final singular, "Benedictus". Good castle tunes. The first picture is great. Just how I would envision a castle in Wales. I don't know what Capability was thinking. You continue you to amaze. Nothing is taken for granted. You get so much out of life. Thank you.

Bente Haarstad said...

I have never been to Wales yet, but it would have been interesting. Great post, love the castle.

MILLY said...

Hope you are enjoying your stay in Cardiff. You did chose a wet month.
Having said that I see you are carrying on regardless and getting to see lots. I am afraid I have never been, so interesting to see it through your eyes. Have a great stay.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. many thanks for the link across to my castle posts .. I'd no idea Cardiff Castle was like this .. one place I'm longing to see is Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute - a totally amazing property built by the polymath that Bute was ..

Polymath's inspire me - and I just think of that brain wandering around doing so much! 21 languages .. did you say?

What a fun tour you had .. in a Castle with ancient walls - I agree extraordinary what Capability Brown did ..

I'm saving your posts til I have a few more than a few minutes - I'll be over ..

Delighted to read this - and thanks for the mention .. cheers Hilary

Brigitta Huegel said...

Dear Sue,
thank you for your remarkable attention you give to all the (sometimes strange) things one can see with open eyes in this awesome castle.
I love its rough exterior - the interior is often ... surprising... sometimes overloaded. Ceilings and walls might be a question of taste - about which one cannot debate (as the saying goes - though I know another saying that means that people who say that are just too lazy to discuss).
A Feng shui master would have to say a few words (like: Off! Off!) to the wall behind Bute's bed... sweet dreams...
The castle shows well that each time has its own taste - sometimes very -mmh - special, as 'Capability' Brown's (now we know why he got that name - capable to do almost everything nobody ever dreamed of before :-)
Has the Marquess of Bute anything to do with Lord Bute, who gave his name to a very beautiful geranium?
Oh Sue, we might rent the banquet hall, if we all collect the money saved by commuting-trains instead of using a taxi..
As you mention Chamberlain: I saw a beautiful picture of him at the National Portrait Gallery.
Violence - Szymborska expresses it so well: shedding quickly-drying blood - often for almost nothing: a sin and waste.

Scott said...

Hi- I saw my wording was off. I wanted to correct it because, I meant it. You continue to amaze,

klahanie said...

Wow Susan. Ah yes, Cardiff Castle. What an informative and fascinating article you have posted in regards to the castle, the train instead of a bus and of course, a mention of the somewhat, dare I say, ongoing gloomy weather.
After having a good look at those photos to entice, I'm considering moving into Cardiff Castle. Or was it Buckingham Palace. One is confused :)
Please, I beg thee, bring over some decent weather on your next visit.

Mark Kerstetter said...

Susan, you could consider travel writing for a second career. Seriously, you should dare disturb the universe with your charming way of describing how you get around, with your excellent photos and descriptions. Did you like the laverbread? Was it rolled thin, and was the texture somewhat chewy like a sushi wrap? Was the cheese on top or inside like a sandwich? I'm so curious!

The details about removing the ivy and filling in the moat reminded me of a passage from Emily Dickinson's biography. In the area of New England where she lived the city planners were busy clearing out the woods thick with 'useless' vegetation and frogs. Wouldn't it be something to see how the world really looked a couple hundred years ago?

Susan Scheid said...

Rubye Jack: Love the idea of a blog get-together in the banquet hall. How many thousands of us do you suppose it would take to pay the freight?

Anil: Thanks for stopping by! Interesting that you also run into the problem where you live, vis-a-vis renovation. Certainly in the case of Cardiff Castle, there have been so many renovations over its two thousand years it’s hard to say what would have been authentic!

John: I think the “new” aspect was what made me gravitate toward the keep, which seemed to resonate more of the castle’s history. What brought you to Cardiff?

Jane and Lance: Interesting that Stuart is well known to you—I did enjoy learning that bit of current history, and the visitor was pleased as punch to share it.

Cathy: The tour was great fun—and a good bit of that had to do with the guide, who knew his stuff and had a great British-wit delivery. About that bed, he did explain, but do I recall it? No. It was striking how small it was, given the grand surroundings. Laverbread, by the way, was quite tasty—more on this in response to Mark.

Scott: Glad you enjoyed the Benedictus—although my post is a little more breezy in tone than the music, it did seem to be a good “castle tune.” The whole of Plain Chants, of which this is a part, is a really lovely piece of choral music, I think. As for Capability, yes, indeed, what was he thinking???

Bente: So glad you enjoyed the castle. Visiting it was good fun.

Milly: I seem to have found a spot between two wet spells, actually. Not so clear from this post, but I ended up with 4 days of 6 sunshine!

Hilary: Just looked up Mount Stuart House. Now that is one grand edifice, to be sure! I believe that’s where the family spent most of its time & used Cardiff Castle as a sort of summer bungalow, about six weeks of the year. Nice work if you can get it, right? And yes, 21 languages. Pretty hard to fathom, isn’t it?

Britta: Yes, they might have benefited from a little Feng shui—though somehow I think that wasn’t the way the Marquess’s taste ran . . . As for the geranium, yes, the Marquess was a Lord Bute, though there were several, so not sure whether he’s the one. I looked up that geranium, and it is beautiful, you’re so right.

Gary: A move to Cardiff Castle might be just the thing—though Buckingham Palace might do in a pinch!

Mark: I am having a good time writing these posts, so I’m pleased that’s coming across! I did like the laverbread. It was a sort of grilled cheese sandwich, and the laverbread seemed to be grilled within it somehow. It didn’t affect the overall texture, but added a sort of salty/seaweed taste that actually complemented the cheddar very well. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what I was eating—I kept trying to figure out what was special about the bread that it would be called laverbread! Really enjoyed the Emily Dickinson story you relate as well. I have often thought, particularly when visiting New York City, how interesting it would be to go back in time. Not even one hundred years ago, I think, the area uptown was rural—grass and cows grazing, the whole deal. Hard to picture that now.

wanderer said...

I always seem to be catching up, better late than not ever. This is a wonderful being-there read Susan, with a happy mix of fact and history and your little twists of wry humour. Lovely. And then that potent final poem sat me right back in this chair as the perspective of existence beyond the superficiality of decoration and tourism tea rooms was restored. You find and give meaning.

Bente Haarstad said...

I find castles so very exciting, almost magical, maybe because we have so few around here. Very interesting and great photos.

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