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Caerphilly, Caerphilly. Some 7 miles North of Cardiff, this town is famous for its cheese and its castle. The castle remains a vast fortification, the second largest in Britain next to Windsor, and really, as Tennyson said, a “ruined town”. Caerphilly's strategic position can best be appreciated by driving over Caerphilly Common, the 800-ft ridge, with hidden valleys and plantations, that separates the Caerphilly area from the low plain on which Cardiff is built. From the top of the hill above the town there is a fine view northwards over the mining valleys of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. You can still see how easily any castle here could command the exits from the tangle of valleys to the North. The Romans were the first to understand the advantages of the site. They built a fort at Caerphilly some time around AD. 75, as part of their defensive network holding down the hill tribes of South Wales. The fort was well placed, within an easy day's march from Cardiff on a road that led northwards through Gelligaer to Brecon. The camp lay about 200 yds North West of the present castle, in the area known as the North-East Earthworks. These fortifications, thrown up during the-Civil War, have greatly disturbed the site, and nothing is visible of the fort above ground.

After the Romans, came the Celtic saints. St Cenydd was active in the district, and his son Fili is supposed to have given his name to the town.

The turning-point in Caerphilly's history was in 1266. Gilbert de Clare, the powerful Lord of Glamorgan, began building the greatest castle so far planned in Wales. The Blaenau (Uplands) of Glamorgan had remained in the possession of the Welsh long after the Bro, the Vale and Lowlands, were in Norman hands. In the middle of the 13th century the Welsh cause had greatly revived under the Princess of North Wales; and, with the local Welsh now looking towards the vigorous leadership of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last native Prince of Wales, the Lord of Glamorgan felt bound to do all in his power to overawe the men of the hills. In 1270 Llywelyn destroyed the half-finished structure. Building started again, and the fortifications were completed in spite of Llywelyn's resistance. The Edwardian conquest of Wales did not remove the need for the new castle. It was attacked and besieged during the revolt of Llywelyn Bren in 1316.

Caerphilly Castle also played an important part in the troubles that beset Edward II. His favourite, Hugh le Despenser, had inherited Caerphilly through his marriage to a daughter of Earl Gilbert. Hugh incurred the hostility of neighbouring barons, who seized Caerphilly in 1321. Although Edward reinstated Hugh, disaster in 1326 overwhelmed King and favourite. Queen Isabella led the revolt of the barons that overthrew the King. He fled to Caerphilly, and left his treasury in the Castle as he wandered further westward towards Neath before the avenging Queen and her allies. The Castle held out against her long after Edward had been captured near Llantrisant. Glyndwr captured the Castle during his revolt, but this was its last serious appearance in history. In 1536 it was in decay — a wilderness, as Leland described it, “of ruinous waulles of wonderful thicknes”.

An earthwork was thrown up on the site of the Roman fort during the Civil War, and one or other of the opposing armies “slighted” the fortress by blowing up some of the towers. As a result of this treatment, one of them still leans at a remarkable angle. The 3rd Marquess of Bute began the work of restoration in the late 19th century by clearing away the houses that had clustered around the walls. His work was continued by the 4th Marquess until the Second World War. The Castle is now in the hands of the Ministry of Public Building and Works. The moat and surrounding lake have been refilled with water. Caerphilly today magnificently demonstrates the power of a medieval stronghold.

It was in fact planned during a great period of castle-building, when England was being influenced by the new ideas on fortification brought back to Europe after the Crusades. New siege engines forced the builders to adopt new tactics. Thick walls alone could not be relied on to keep out the enemy. The aim now was to seal off the attackers if they succeeded in breaking in. Hence the “concentric castle”, with a double set of defences, each complete in itself. The inner ring would dominate the outer even if the outer fell. Beaumaris in North Wales is a fine example of this style. Caerphilly is even more impressive. The outer and inner wards of Caerphilly are a complete “concentric castle” in themselves, surrounded by a lake. In addition, there is a powerful hornwork of earthen banks on an island in the middle of the water that guarded the castle to the West, and to the East a great curtain wall, strengthened by towers and buttresses. This huge eastern front not only protected the eastern approaches but dammed the Nant y Gledyr stream, and, by stretching right across the line of drainage, created and defended the lake. It also had a moat before it. The banks of the moats have now been cleared and turfed, and the Castle stands again in the middle of the restored lakes, complete with swans.

The main entrance is on the East side, across the outer moat. On either side of this gatehouse run the North and South platforms. On the South platform was the mill, worked by water that poured through an outlet under the platform from the South lake. A strong postern guarded the southern end of this platform. The North platform is narrower and is also known as the “royal stables”. The oubliettes, or pits, opposite each tower were originally covered by trapdoors, which could be opened in case the garrison had to retreat into the inner defences, formed by the “concentric castle” itself.

These were reached by a drawbridge. The walls of the outer ward are comparatively low, to allow them to be dominated from the towers of the inner ward. The inner ward contained the heart of the Castle. In the quadrangle, marked by four great towers at the corners, is the eastern gate-house, with arrangements for a portcullis and with a small vaulted chapel. The smaller western gate-house stands on the other side of the greensward of the inner quadrangle, and next to it is the great hall. This is early l4th century and was probably built for Hugh le Despenser. When the present restoration is complete, the hall will reappear in its old glory as one of the most important buildings of its kind in Wales. The celebrated “Leaning Tower of Caerphilly” stands on the South East corner of the inner ward. This fragment of one of the corner drum-towers is 80 ft high and 13 ft out of the perpendicular. It was blown up deliberately during the Civil Wars of the 17th century.

The Castle dominates Caerphilly, and there are few other ancient buildings that survived the expansion of the town with the development of the coalfield. The remains of the old manor house of the Van lie at the foot of the wooded hills on the road to Rudry. This was once a fine Tudor mansion, built in 1530. Thirty years later the owner, Thomas Lewis, obtained permission to pillage the Castle for stone to enlarge the building. The family of Lewis the Van claimed descent from Ivor Bach, the celebrated Welsh chieftain of Senghennydd, who was a doughty opponent of the Normans in the 12th century. The Van fell into ruin when the family removed to St Fagan's Castle.

In the South West of Caerphilly is Watford, where the first synod of the newly formed Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church was held in 1743. From Watford, George Whitfield married Elizabeth James of Abergavenny in 1741. The marriage took place at Capel Martin, which has now been rebuilt. Near Watford Chapel is Waenwaelod, the birthplace of David Williams, the remarkable pamphleteer who became a deist, attempted to establish a cult of Nature, and wrote a litany for it that won the approval of Voltaire, Franklin, and Rousseau. His Letters on Political Liberty (1782) in support of the Americans, made him a leader of radical thinking, and he later became an honorary citizen of the French Republic. In 1796 he published his History of Monmouthshire. His most enduring memorial is the Royal Literary Fund, which he founded.

Caerphilly cheese also belongs to history so far as the town is concerned. This delicious, light, and crumbly cheese was a favourite with the old miners, and the Caerphilly cheese-market was famous throughout southern Glamorgan. Early in the 20th century production was being overtaken by Devonshire and Somerset, and Caerphilly cheese ceased to be made in the place of its origin. Attempts are being made to ensure that some Caerphilly cheese is again made in Caerphilly.

Nearby cities: Cardiff

Nearby towns: Aberdare, Bridgend, Llandaff, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport

Nearby villages: Abercarn, Abercarne, Abercynon, Bedwas, Birchgrove, Crosskeys, Cwmcarn, Lisvane, Llanbradach, Llanishen, Machen, Maesycwmmer, Mynyddislwyn, Nantgarw, Pentyrch, Pontfaen, Radyr, Risca, Rudry, Saint Mellons, Senghenydd, Taffs Well, Thornhill, Treforest, Whitchurch, Ystrad Mynach

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