Last Monday was Cardiff Castle day, finally visiting and doing the house tour of Wales’ capital castle with all its carving, decor and story-telling. The staff were all expert and friendly, from the Harris hawk falconer, the guides and the door people who answered all our queries. The three of us can be curious.
Like most days out with friends, this began with a Valleys line train and ended in a pub. To set the scene from the train, I snapped texture with reflections and a wintry old mans beard against corrugations near Ninian Park.
Our trains from Swindon, Bath and Ponty brought us together at Cardiff Central, and we walked between Millenium Stadium and river to the castle’s famous animal wall. Linda and I shall be comparing our blogs of the day – I’ve left the animals for her.
The castle is handsome outside and in. I recalled peacocks. They were retired after pecking once too often and lacking identity: we were told that a visitor asked if she could photograph the “turkeys”. A chestnut-shouldered hawk with an eye for a warm pigeon has clear advantages.
We collected our audio guides and read up a quick history – that mound is not Roman but is Norman, though the boundary is Roman. We went up a stairway for our house tour. With metal animals on the spouts and gutters, the detail typical of its architect William Burges (1827-1881) quickly becomes obssessive.
From 1866, the castle was built mainly under Burges, who had an extraordinary style of interpretation of medieval, involving every symbol, myth and motif within a tale so that colour, shape and 3-d vision totally overload but are held steady by his grasp of the bigger picture he was telling, in my view. He also had humour. He used the best materials and had a consistent craft team, and the 3rd Marquis of Bute was obscenely rich, wealthy from land and coal. The friendship worked well.
It is sometimes argued that Burges influenced the Victorian terraces of Cardiff, with their bay windows, carved stone mouldings, and decorative tiled front porches. The Arts and Crafts site http://www.achome.co.uk/williamburges/index.php?page=home has lots of images and essays on him and his Pre-Raphaelite Gothic opium-dreamed imagination, influences of Pugin, Islamic and eastern art.
The ceiling of the first room, a retiring room, has time-related sequences: on the left is Leo, and there are days of the week in stained glass windows among the times.
I liked the tiny inlaid mother of pearl in the beehive on the wood furniture, and the frogs carved, one grabbing a mouse tail. So much to see and absorb. Off we went …
Next was the nursery and I was thinking of recent publications of old, unprettified fairy tales – here there were English, French and German all jumbled round the room. One (left below) is a bit like Rumpelstitskin but the princess rescues the prince. On the right, is the next room with the exact replica made locally of the old wall hangings.
The amount of beautiful work deserves more than one visit, with almost every surface offering exquisite craft, a tiny painting or carving.
The bathroom has marble tiles, each one named, set in rich warm wood.
We all loved the roof garden, although it would be even better without a cover. My friends, both clever gardeners and allotmenters, were imagining plantings in the metal containers. Inscriptions round the sides are in hebrew. The camel has a superb look.
I took photos out of the windows, which are half mirrored: you can see past the fancy tower on one side and over the moat and bridge on the other. We struggled to work out where the garden was once back in the grounds.
Back to the sumptious again. The wallpaper in the next room downstairs is linen and painted with fruit. It was a sitting room and there’s no story or animation.
The banqueting hall is hired out for weddings and events and hosted the world’s leaders during the NATO summit last September. It’s daft, really, that the history wasn’t part of the proceedings because this is the whole tale of Robert, illegitimate son of Henry I, 1st Earl of Gloucester and 2nd Lord of Glamorgan, who may have built the Norman keep. Here he is on his horse, with the imprisoned pretender to the throne and a castle scene above those fat little rabbits on the chimneypiece. The murals were by H. W. Lonsdale, and the chimneypiece was sculpted by Thomas Nicholls, both key members of Burges’ team.
We were tiring a bit, on into the library. More little animals, here monkeys, and birds, and authors names inscribed into the wallpaper.
I was curious about the tiling at the back of the fireplaces – the colours are stunning and look more modern than 19th century. A guide told us about the manufacturers, W B Simpson, who made these special enamelled tiles. Most of the tiles painted for Burges came from the specialists, who still have a site http://wbsimpsonsons.co.uk/history/
The same guide pointed out a few more of the humourous animals in the murals. That extra detail may be in the connoiseur’s tour they are considering for summer.
We went last to the Arab room and that must have been designed stoned, with gold leaf everywhere and so many perspective changes into the ceiling it is truly weird. here’s the floor instead.
We were ready for food and dumped our audio guides before heading out for energy. A hard choice, with the popular delis with tempting cake in the window and prices to match. We dithered but chose well, Restuarant Minuet a traditional family italian, and had tasty pasta dishes which set us up for a tour of the grounds and climb up the tower on the keep, not all the way. There was rain and steep steps to come down.
After that, we had delightful help in Ecco trying for walking boots, disgraced ourselves in shops like Vivienne Westwood, imagining someone hissing “get those old women OUT of here” as we tried to get Linda to buy a lovely dress at a huge price. We pursuaded her to buy a top in John Lewis which had a magic 50% discount at the till. It was time for the pub near to the station.
I was very good, getting back for my aerobics class in the village hall. Definitely a good day out, and at last I’ve seen Cardiff Castle after living here for over 20 years.