Friday, 9 November 2018

Mr Steve & JJ's Three Castles Walk - Part One

It was back in sunny September that Mr Steve and I set out on a planned two day expedition to walk part of the Three Castles walk on the South Wales border and to take in a few other sites along the way.

The weather for our little 'beano' turned out lovely with warm sunny afternoons embraced with autumnal chilly mornings and evenings, perfect for getting out and about and seeing a bit of history.

The map below illustrates the signed route between the three Marcher castles of Skenfrith, White and Grosmont, on the Herefordshire- Monmouthshire border, which is a mixture of cross-country walking, mainly fields and tracks, mixed with the occasional minor road or lane.

As you will see from the map this is very much contested border country of old with the cross swords battle sites of 1404 and 05 marked up for the campaigns of Owen Glendower.

Battle of Campston Hill 1404

Battle of Grosmont Castle

My Welsh ancestry can hold its head proud for causing so much trouble in centuries past which if the castles visited bear testimony to was on occasion a good deal of trouble.

The wall of Skenfrith Castle with the central bastion built in the late 13th century, between the north-west and south-west towers, with the grass in front covering the moated area in front of the wall. The tower keep looms above.

Steve and I met up mid morning as I had a two hour drive up from Devon and after leaving each of our cars at each end, set out to walk from Skenfrith to White castle, about eight miles, but given the occasional map reading detours and a landscape not dissimilar to Devon, a county of hills and valleys, it certainly felt and probably was a lot further.

A really interesting aspect of spending a day not just looking at the castle sites, which on their own are extremely revealing, but also the opportunity to experience walking in the landscape that the warriors from this particular era and those before, as the Romans campaigned in the area against the Silures, would have had to contend with.

Obviously many of them would have been a lot younger and a lot fitter than us two old codgers but the difficulties of moving even a small army amid this terrain was well demonstrated during our days walk.

The artwork on the sign boards at Skenfrith give an excellent impression of this small castle built in the 13th century besides the River Monnow controlling the access routes into and out of England on this part of the Welsh border.

As can be seen the castle was originally surrounded by a water filled moat that used water from the nearby river to feed it and Steve and I were keen to explore the circumference for evidence of how that system was designed.

The map below gives a good plan of the site together with information on the various buildings within the castle and likely dates for their inclusion.

Before setting out on our walk I turned to my copy of the Osprey title 'The Scottish and Welsh Wars 1250-1400' to refresh my memory with an overview of the Welsh frontier during the time these castles were in operation together with the men who likely manned them and fought locally.

Osprey Men at Arms - The Scottish & Welsh Wars 1250-1400

Skenfrith is a pretty hamlet with a pub built near to the castle and on the day we visited the weather bode well for our walk.

The three castles of Skenfrith, White and Grosmont were built by the Normans, probably before 1100 and would have been simple wooden motte and bailey arrangements when first constructed.

The area was an important choke point along the border with England known as the Welsh Marches and the castles were put under the control of one of the Welsh Marcher Lords, Hubert de Burgh who probably had Skenfrith rebuilt in stone between 1228 and 1232.

The remains of the base of the north-west tower - see map above, with the ramp further along leading into the main gate

The wall along from the main gate leading to the north-east tower

Looking along the wall from the north-east tower on the bank of the River Monnow

Large chunks of masonry perhaps part of the wall or an earlier bridge?

The Water Gate or postern gate leading out from the wall above the river bank

Remains of a long disused sluice gate leading to the river

A water wheel, part of the mill built on the back wall of the castle and making use of the river and moat for more peaceful purposes

Hubert's castle was a rectangular affair with towers built in each corner of a curtain wall surrounded by a moat.

The inner courtyard was dominated by a tower keep which both it and the walls would have originally had overhanging wooden fighting platforms.

The keep really is the dominating feature of this relatively small castle and still towers over the curtain walls around it today

The area within the wall also encompassed the kitchen, living accommodation, likely stabling and a small chapel.

The inside of the wall between the north-east and south-east towers along which the kitchen range of buildings would have stood.

Across from the kitchen wall the other wall was taken up with the living accommodation for the Lord and his men

The remains of the fire place, seen in the great hall

This small but imposing castle would have been a very difficult place to attack with its moated wall and could probably have been well defended by a relatively small but well armed garrison.

Living accommodation next to the great hall

The base of the oven to the left of the gatehouse
The wall between the south-east and south-west towers has seen the addition of an old mill and stable block seemingly added in the 19th century.

A memorial to the transport of past centuries gifted to the parish

With Skenfrith well and truly explored, it was on with the walking boots and backpack and off on the walk to a much more imposing castle, White Castle.

The route we were following is well signed with route markers positioned at strategic way-points along it and both Steve and I enjoyed the challenge of staying on track whilst chatting and taking our packed lunch among glorious countryside with weather to match.

That said by late afternoon, the legs and back were starting to feel the last couple of miles and White Castle for me was starting to take on that mythical element, rather like Camelot in a certain Monty Python epic, each time Steve suggested it should be insight just over that next hill.

Finally the curtain wall of White Castle comes into view, nestled behind the roof of a distant farmhouse, as this was taken with telephoto!

As can be seen in the illustration below White Castle is a very serious statement of intent amid this pastoral landscape which was designed to leave the locals in no doubt as to who was in charge.

White Castle or Castell Gwyn is thought to get its name from the white plaster applied to some of the exterior stonework although another explanation suggests that the name Castell Gwyn refers to the name of Gwyn ap Gwaethfod who possibly occupied an earlier defensive position on this site at the time of the Norman invasion.

As mentioned, White Castle was built originally by the Normans in wood sometime before 1100 and originally had a central tower withing the inner ward with a wooden stockade and moat encompassing the outer ward, both of which were later rebuilt in stone around 1184-86 whilst also seeing the tower within the inner main ward demolished.

It seems a very uncertain political situation in Wales lead to the decision in the 1260's to massively rebuild and strengthen the defences of White Castle, which saw the addition of projecting towers well equipped with arrowloops together with a new entrance protected by imposing twin towers.

The whole castle area was surrounded by a moat with drawbridges protecting the entrances to both the outer and inner keep.

Osprey Men at Arms - The Scottish & Welsh Wars 1250-1400

The smaller gatehouse added to the curtain wall of the outer ward sometime in the 1260's

White Castle is a major military establishment and it is thought that the outer ward served as an army base which would have been fitted out with many wooden buildings within its stone wall to accommodate the troops stationed here.

The outer ward curtain wall and ditch which would have been a moat, leading to the gated entrance with its protected drawbridge

The furthest tower on the northern wall of the outer keep marks the extent of the area used to accommodate a local army 

The upgrade made to the castle in the 1260's saw the increased provision of arrowloops

The Outer Ward seen from the bridge over the moat to the inner ward conveys the extent of this area for housing a large number of troops in a defended area.

Where Skenfrith Castle's dominating feature was its tower keep, White Castle's is definitely its extraordinary twin towered gate standing proud behind its gorge of a moat.

Now that is what you call a gate house!

And that is what you call a moat! Are you seriously going to attack this place!

Mr Steve conveniently stands in to give a sense of scale to this impressive twin-towered gate house.

The remains of the runner that would have housed the portcullis is still visible in front of the arched entrance

The view of the inner ward from the main gate house

The small buildings along this wall of the inner keep housed the kitchen

On this side of the keep are the remains of the great hall and apartments

The view of the gate house seen from the rear of the inner ward near to the keep

The towers on the wall of the inner ward are massive and house serried floors of fireplaces that would have provided a modicum of comforts to the garrison

As you can see from these pictures White Castle is a very powerful operating base and quite different from the much smaller Skenfrith Castle whose scale suggests more one of living accommodation for the Lord and a small garrison to police the local area.

The southern wall of the outer ward viewed from a shallow dried up moat is no less imposing than that of the inner ward

With our tour around White Castle a fine way to end a very nice day's walk Steve and I were keen to head off to our accommodation, The Old Rectory in pretty Llangattock Lingoed.

The Old Rectory, Llangattock Lingoed

Not to mention sampling the fine beverages and good food on offer at our nearby hostelry, the Hunters Moon Inn where after all that fresh air both of us were starving.

Right next door to our B&B was the Hunters Moon Inn

The day ended as gloriously as it had started and maintained throughout, offering splendid views of the surrounding countryside from the garden.

Oh and see that tree to the right of picture, well whilst arranging the shot I couldn't help but notice the melodious bird-song accompanying my attempts to frame the shot.

So a quick squeeze on the telephoto and a realignment revealed our dainty little 'songmeister', a Robin celebrating his or her (only Robins can tell the difference!) surroundings sat close to the perfect Christmas shot of red berries set against evergreen.

In part two of this post Mr Steve and I decided to go easy on our knackered old frames and take the car to look at a very old church or two, Grosmont Castle , Raglan Castle and the Roman Veterans Town of Caerwent.

Other sources referred to in this post


  1. Great post! Lovely pictures and text- it inspires me to visit there one day.

  2. Nice write up - thank you - a walking destination idea to add to my own list!

  3. What a lovely walk! And the white castle seems like it would have been pretty rough to assault, even with a far superior army.

  4. Lovely pair of castles! Nicely varied too and sounds like a great walk!
    Best Iain

  5. Most enjoyable post thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks for your comments chaps, I'm glad you enjoyed the read. Both Steve and I thoroughly enjoyed our two days out and about and I will aim to have the second post covering day two out soon.

    As you can see from the pictures this is a beautiful part of the UK to visit and particularly when blessed with the weather we enjoyed.

    Cheers all

  7. Brilliant! Reminds me of a very enjoyable holiday a few years ago.

  8. Those castles have seen better days, although I don't see the usual trademark "cannon meets castle" on their structures and nor do they look "slighted". Any idea what happened or did they just fall down/get robbed out ?


  9. Thanks Chaps.

    Re the battered appearance, I think the latter is the case with both a bit of falling down and stone taken for neighbouring buildings