There’s a castle in Barry Island

posted in: South Wales, Wales | 0
Model boats sail on Cold Knap's lake
Model boats provide weekend entertainment

When I was a kid, a day trip to Barry Island was all about the beach and the funfair. In those days, few working class families owned cars so our coach trips to Barry and neighbouring Porthcawl became the highlight of our summer holidays.

While those rowdy street outings will always hold a special place in my heart, I’m not so sure the present-day me would be willing to trek miles to the water’s edge to paddle in muddy tidal waters. (Alright, I exaggerate slightly, but the Bristol Channel does have tidal ranges of up to nine metres so when the tide is out it means it’s an awful long way out.) I rather doubt I’d want to spend hours being flung round and round in circles on the Waltzer either but in my early teens the funfair at Barry Island was my idea of heaven (though the rides now seem incredibly tame compared to many of today’s theme park rides).

And if we ever tired of the beach and funfair there was always the walk around the headland to Butlins. Not that we ever actually went into the holiday park; you had to buy a day pass for that and none us had the money. We’d just gaze longingly towards the attractions, before turning and retracing our steps back to the half-circle of deckchairs on Barry beach where our parents and neighbours sat drinking tea and eating sandwiches, not having budged for hours. Sadly, Barry Butlins is no more (it closed in 1986, reopened as Majestic in 1987 but closed for the last time in 1996) and a hillside once lined with flat-roofed hi-di-hi chalets is now home to the executive kind of little boxes. Aesthetically, I suppose modern housing is more pleasing than the architecture of the 1960s, but I doubt they’ll ever ignite the imaginations of today’s children in the way those Butlins chalets did ours.

One attraction we never sought out in those halcyon days was Barry Castle. In fact, until a few days ago I didn’t even realise that Barry had a castle. I don’t recall it featuring much in Gavin and Stacey (well not in Series One anyway) though, thinking about it now, the Norman gatehouse is perhaps better suited as a set for Being Human (which, since Series Three, has also been set in Barry).

Looking down at Cold Knap's pebbled beach
Looking down at Cold Knap’s pebbled beach

We set off from Cold Knap which, while lacking the golden sands of its noisy neighbour, is rather a pleasant place to enjoy the winter sunshine. It’s got a certain gentile feel about it, Cold Knap, with its harp-shaped lake, little stone bridge, swans and extensive lawns. According to local historian Tom Clemett, the ‘Knap’ was the most vibrant part of Barry during the 1950s. The tidal swimming pool has long since gone, like the majority of lidos around the country, but the area maintains an air of upmarket leisure.

After enjoying a stroll around the grassy headland which separates Cold Knap from Barry harbour, we started our walk proper and headed off through the Grade II listed Romilly Park where the autumn leaves were fast falling. It appears the Romilly family were to Barry what the Morgan family (of Tredegar House) were to Newport, with much of their land now in public ownership.

We emerged at the top of the park, opposite the Gorsedd Circle from the 1920 Eisteddfod (it was held in the park) and within a few minutes we’d arrived at our destination… Barry Castle.

Not the most imposing site for a castle
Not the most imposing site for a castle

The first thing that strikes you is that it’s located on a corner of a busy residential road right next to some rather nice red-brick houses. There are several benches scattered around and there’s an electricity sub-station right behind it (it’s disguised by similar stonework but the warning sign kinda gives it away). I thought I’d spotted a high-level walkway when I noticed some wrought ironwork above me, but Harri pointed out that the higher ground was actually someone’s garden.

So… a castle that’s survived the centuries in the truest sense of the word. Barry Castle is not just still there, like most of the less impressive castle ruins we’ve seen, but it’s still playing an active part in ordinary people’s lives, hundreds of years after it was built.

Of course, it was never a proper castle at all, just a courtyard house with what Adrian Pettifer describes as ‘limited defensive pretensions’ in his excellent book Welsh Castles but let’s not split hairs here.

A chainsaw sculpture close to the arches of Porthkerry viaduct
A chainsaw sculpture close to the arches of Porthkerry viaduct

Our next stop was Porthkerry Country Park, another area of Barry once in the ownership of the wealthy Romilly family who bought the land in 1412 and built cottages for estate workers and foresters, established stables and a sawmill and drained woods and fields.

I have a vague memory of going to an evening barbecue on the pebble beach in my teens, though as a youngster, the park’s natural attractions could never compete with the pull of Barry’s man made ones.

Looking back to Cold Knap from Porthkerry Country Park
Looking back to Cold Knap from Porthkerry Country Park

The overall walk was less than five miles, one of the shortest in our book of walks from castles in Newport and Cardiff. It’s an easy walk, with great coastal views, nice trails through woodland and an incredible viaduct to admire at Porthkerry. Barry Castle might not be on the same grand scale as Caerphilly or Raglan, but I liked its accessibility and the way these Norman ruins have managed to blend into a 21st century street.

I’ll admit it now. I didn’t much like Gavin and Stacey. I do, however, like Stacey’s hometown of Barry. I like it very much.

The excavated remains of a Roman villa at Cold Knap
The excavated remains of a Roman villa at Cold Knap

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