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Caerphilly might be best known for its cheese but for anyone who has ever visited, the impressive late 13th century medieval castle will certainly leave a bigger impression. Unlike the castles of North Wales (which were built to signify the English conquest of the country), the South Welsh castles were generally built by local lords to consolidate their own power within the region, rather than to suppress. Caerphilly is one of the most impressive examples of this.
Getting to Caerphilly Castle is pretty straightforward, thanks to some good transport links and excellent signs which don't suddenly disappear on you! Simply head on the A470 (the main road linking Cardiff to the South Wales Valleys) towards Merthyr Tydfil and you will see signs to the castle. These don't just point you off the at the correct junction, but keep appearing at helpful intervals until you actually arrive at your destination.
Although a hugely impressive structure Caerphilly Castle is not as big a tourist magnet as the more famous castles of North Wales, like Conway or Caernarvon. Although we went just outside the main tourist season (the week after the schools returned from their summer holidays), we had no trouble parking. Free on-street parking is available on some of the approach roads to the town and castle, although these tend to fill up pretty quickly. However, there is a reasonable sized pay and display car park less than five minutes' walk away from the castle. This is very reasonably priced (from memory, I think it was about 80p for 2 hours) and there were plenty of spaces when we arrived.
The approach to Caerphilly Castle is probably one of the most spectacular of all the Welsh castles. Unusually, it actually sits fairly low in the landscape, not on top of a large mound or hill. However, it is surrounded by water on pretty much all sides so you can see why this site was chosen! This makes the modern day approach to the castle very picturesque, as you can walk along the lakeside to reach it. It also means that, if you go on the right day, you can take some stunning pictures of the castle bathed in sunlight, reflecting in the lake.
Dating from around the 1260s and built as a strategic fortress to protect the lands of one of the Norman lords, Caerphilly is still incredibly striking today. Although a ruin, the castle still retains much of its original shape. It is one of the earliest examples of concentric castle design (where each area of the castle was a self-contained defensive unit, so that even if the outer walls of the castle were breached, the defenders had to do it all again with a completely new set of undamaged walls).
It is also an excellent and highly impressive example of medieval architecture and fascinating to walk around. You are not only able to walk around the lower levels of the castle, but at some points, can also climb onto the walls and towers which offer some spectacular views across the town. Although a ruin, there is still plenty to see and lots of nooks and crannies to explore. Kids will love dashing about the walls pretending they are protecting the castle from enemy soldiers!
For adults, there are plenty of well-written information boards at various locations, telling you what each part of the ruins was originally used for and giving you an artist's impression of it might originally have looked like. These help you piece together the various bits of the castle, establish how it developed over the years, as well as giving you some idea of how impressive it must have looked when complete.
Caerphilly has two particularly notable features which set it apart from some other castles The first is the Main Hall which still stands more or less complete (although it has obviously been rebuilt and altered over the years). This is hugely impressive, with its high vaulted roof, enormous fireplaces and bare stone walls. You can really imagine how incredible it must have looked when filled with the hustle and bustle of everyday castle activities!
The other is the leaning tower. Due to a mixture of subsidence and deliberate damage (attempts were made during the Civil War to undermine the castle's foundations), one of the towers on the castle leans at a crazy angle. In fact, it leans at an even greater angle than the Leaning Tower of Pisa! To get the best view of the actual extent of this lean, it's best to leave the castle and view it from across the lake, although even up close you can see how crooked it is and marvel that it is still standing upright!
Caerphilly Castle also has something a little different which kids (young and old!) will enjoy. Just outside the main walls are reconstructions of three siege weapons used to attack castles. These are in full working order (although, sadly, you can't actually have a go on them!) and you can climb onto at least one of them to get a proper look. They are occasionally demonstrated, so if you go on the right day you might even get to see them in action.
As with most castles in South Wales, Caerphilly represents good value for money. When we visted in September 2010, an adult admission cost £3.60, with concessions charged £3.20. English Heritage members can also use their cards to get in for either free or half price (depending on how long you have been a member). We both thought these costs were very reasonable and you should easily get your money's worth from your visit.
Of course, as with all castles, there is a note of caution to be sounded if you are elderly or infirm. Some areas (including the castle entrance and the Great Hall) can be accessed quite easily and don't involve steep steps or long climbs. Others (such as the castle walls and towers) obviously do, so if you are a little unsteady on your feet, you might yourself unable to see some areas. One positive aspect is that the towers which you climb are still enclosed, so you don't have to worry too much about slippery steps on wet days.
The other minor drawback to Caerphilly is that, like most castles, the facilities are rather limited. There is a small gift shop and some toilets, and that is about it. Having said that, the castle stands right in the middle of the town so if you need anything else, there are plenty of shops right on your doorstep.
Caerphilly Castle is definitely worth a visit for all the family. If you are interested in castle ruins, there are few finer examples, whilst kids will love running around on the castle walls and pretending to repel invaders on the replica siege weapons. A fun afternoon out for all the family, it comes highly recommended if you enjoy visiting sites of historical interest.
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