Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Two churches and a castle

I have had a busy, and very enjoyable week here, with my birthday in the middle of it, and I have been gardening fit to bust, taking advantage of some beautiful sunshine and temperatures in the upper 60s. I had a spread of presents over several days - having opened a couple of parcels to find that the pressies inside weren't wrapped, so the pleasure was spread out. Likewise, we couldn't get out as usual on my birthday, so we went out a couple of days later and headed towards Ross-on-Wye, so I could meet up with my dear friend J.

The weather was lovely (despite it being a bit gloomy and picking with rain when we set off), but the further we drove, the more it improved. Heading Eastwards, we found that Spring was still on the back foot in Carmarthenshire. Once free of the mountains, nearly all the trees had leaves and there was the most beautiful green flush across the hedgerows and woodland. Here in our neck of the woods, we are predominantly Oak and Ash and Sycamore, and these are still bare, though some of the Oaks have a slight rusty mist about them. How good it was to see so much green, so much blossom - it lifts my spirits just thinking about it. There were pear trees white with blossom from head to foot, like shining spires in the orchards as they are such tall and stately trees. The pale petals of the wild Geans (cherry trees) danced in the breeze and the apple orchards were just breaking into deep pink buds and sharp green leaflets.

I shall be peverse, and start with the Castle first, which was Skenfrith, visited on the way home as my husband hadn't been there. If only we had had more time, and could have visited its partners in crime, Grosmont and White Castle (which I have visited in the past). The three formed a triangle of Norman command in this area,controlling the Welsh marches in river valleys (the Monnow for Grosmont and Skenfrith, which are further Eastwards, and White Castle by the River Troddi).

Skenfrith is a veritable pocket-handkerchief of a castle, easily run by a small garrison of men. One imagines that it may well have been surrounded by marshland (it is low-lieing) when it was built.

This triumvirate of castles: Grosmont, White and Skenfrith, were established by the early 12th Century when the Lordship of the Trilateral or the Three Castles, was granted to Payn Fitzjohn in 1136. Skenfrith, at that point, would have been a simple wooden motte and bailey castle. Skenfrith still sits on the main route through this area from Abergavenny (where there is another castle) towards Ross-on-Wye (Wilton and Goodrich castles on outskirts of).

Henry II ordered Skenfrith to be rebuilt in stone in 1187, but work stopped just a year later, and then in 1193 William de Braose (a Marcher Lord whose history can be found in the excellent novel Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine) took it over and filled the gaps in the stone walls with a strong wooden pallisade. He was Sheriff of the area at that time.

By 1219 Hubert de Burgh was given the Lordship and set about rebuilding in stone, but a disastrous flooding of the Monnow a year later undid all this hard work. Undeterred, de Burgh then raised the level of the motte and bailey into a platform above the marshes, and built on again in stone. The round keep, which still survives very well, was roofed with lead in subsequent years, at the command of Henry III, and a 5th tower was later added whilst Edward I was king. In 1267, ownership was passed by Henry III to his son Prince Edmund "Crouchback", Earl of Lancaster, and ownership stayed in the Lancaster family for 200 years, although Grosmont was the primary residence and Skenfrith and White castles fell into disrepair.

Skenfrith, as you see it today, gives the impression of a doughty little castle, the tower still standing to attention, an appletree beside it well-grown from the core which must have been thrown there in Victorian times . . . With the shadows lengthening across the grass, and the huddle of houses built in beautifully dressed - castle! - stone nearby, and a squat Welsh church, it was a fitting end to our day.

Plenty of Mistletoe bedecking the apple tree.

Brief history of the castle and below, picture of what it would have looked like in its early years.

One of the corner towers.

Many thanks to THIS on-line article about Skenfrith's history.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful places with us.

  2. Remember 'doing' these castles on a trip. The Roundheads stabled their horses in one of the churches by one of the castles which struck me as wicked at the time.
    Used to take the grownup 'children' camping in the Forest of Dean, and there is a lovely cottage done up in true Victorian style somewhere in the forest, but I can't remember the name of the mining centre....

  3. Ah - i know they did it on Dartmoor too - at Liverton - or was it Ilsington? I believe. There are still the marks of the horses' shoes on the flagstones.

    Was it Cinderford in the Forest of Dean? I think that was one of the mining centres. And Drybrook too?

  4. I'm a bit sheepish about confessing that my scatty knowledge of history has often been informed and inspired by historical novels. In my defense I have to point out that if well done, they can draw one into an era in a way that the cold hard facts of a history book doesn't acheive. Barbara Erskine seems a familiar name and I'm wondering if I've read some of her books.
    I would love to see these places in person.
    My thought of these old churches and castles is of vast echoing and chilly, unheated spaces. Maybe a bit musty smelling? Places where one's footsteps sound too loud?

  5. Howard and I visited Skenfrith Castle a couple of years back. It was a soggy Autumn day, and the river was a torrent.

    Wandering around the green between the castle and the river, I kicked up a bit of stone near a tree root. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a piece of medieval floor tile!

    We took photos and placed it back where it had been. I wonder if anyone else has found it.