Despite Wales’ likely status as the planet’s most densely castellated nation (only the Czechs and Slovaks can justifiably vie for this title), it is regrettably a myth that a fortress seemingly crests every hilltop, as some tourist-oriented merchandise intimates. Travelling along the fertile Tywi River valley between Llandeilo and Carmarthen, however, is one of those zones where the myth holds true. Dryslwyn Castle is one of a triumvirate of fortifications (along with Dinefwr Castle and Paxton’s Tower) within a virtual trebuchet hurl of each other along this stretch of pea-green undulating farming land. And something in its broken, embattled aspect atop an invariably bypassed riverside crag renders it this writer’s favourite Welsh fortress.
Placid sheep-grazed fields looped through by Wales’ longest river, the Tywi, make up the scenery today but in medieval times this was also fraught frontierland between the western edge of the Norman-controlled Marches and native Welsh-controlled Wales. Carmarthen (11 miles west of Dryslwyn) was always Norman-held territory; Llandovery (18 miles northeast) seesawed between Norman and Welsh control. This made Dryslwyn, all on its own in a wide, easily approached valley, rather vulnerable.
As with many things in the 12th century in this part of Wales, it has been suggested that Lord Rhys, the most famous prince to rule the territory of Deheubarth which spanned much of present-day South Wales and Mid Wales, had a hand in Dryslwyn’s development. There are certain similarities between the better-known Dinefwr, built up by Lord Rhys into Deheubarth’s capital, and Dryslwyn. But it was Lord Rhys’ son, Rhys Gryg (this, his main nickname, hilariously translating as Rhys the Hoarse!), who was credited with later raising Dryslwyn Castle some time around 1220. And he built it well: it survives today as one of the finest still-standing (and thus, best-constructed) Welsh-built castles: something, in terms of true Welsh identity, to celebrate more than those bigger, more famous and yet Norman castles such as Caernarfon, which were sad symbols of Welsh subjugation in their day.
Defender of the realm…
Of course, Dryslwyn Castle’s setting alone elevates it into a special category: whilst in Wales castles generally sit in the centre of the settlements that grew around them, this fortress perches alone on a hilltop removed even from the village of Dryslwyn, built on the idea that several Welsh-built castles were, with expansive views over a valley as a key trait. Being well apart too from any major road means that this sees only a handful of visitors most days of the year, and people play second fiddle to the sheep and occasional cattle that graze the steep grassy moorland slopes ascending to the castle’s outer walls. Even once up on the battlements, the view is quintessential rural Carmarthenshire: the serpentine Tywi meandering alongside the southern defences then bending across a floodplain of lush pastureland dotted with farmsteads and flanked by wooded hills. It is the kind of view castle enthusiasts welcome: one which makes you pause for a moment, and think that in this ruin’s 13th-century heyday surroundings looked much the same. And of course to clamber to the top of a castle and spot two further fortifications on the skyline is special.
Brilliantly, CADW who manage the site have kept it ruggedly authentic, with the path up just that the sheep have made, and with just a couple of explanatory boards, the same number of handrails and no further encroachments of 20th or 21st centuries whatsoever with the walls as they were when broken in war between 620 and 730 years ago.
The round tower, now crumbled to just a few feet in height, was the central feature of the castle Rhys Gryg built, with the looming stonework of the adjoining great hall still standing tall today. But during the 13th century many additions were made to Dryslwyn: an east hall and inner and outer wards, and defences which enclosed a significant medieval community of dwellings, and would have made the castle almost the largest and most complex Welsh-constructed fortress by 1280.
In 1287, things changed. A revolt by Deheubarth ruler Rhys ap Maredudd (great-grandson of Lord Rhys) led to English forces being dispatched to lay siege to Rhys’ castle at Dryslwyn. All in all some 11000 troops mustered on the floodplain of the Tywi, hitting the castle with the war machine of the day (a trebuchet) and a three-week siege, after which Dryslwyn finally fell into English hands. Almost needless to say, Rhys ap Maredudd’s revolt led to no good – and he went down in history as the last ruler of Deheubarth, too. The castle was damaged in the conflict and its importance declined. It was still considered significant enough for that last Welsh independence fighter, Owain Glyndwr, to retake in 1403, but the English recaptured it and then ceased to use it.
Today, it is mainly a spot to appreciate some of the land that time forgot. Ah. And…
What to do
Check out the magnificent castle ruins, of course, playing hide-and-seek or posing for pictures on the giddying ramparts or even picnicking on the tussocky slopes. And then:
Tubing/kayaking! When we first moved to Wales we lived not far from here, and the gently winding Tywi is perfect for tubing a small section – or kayaking, but we chose to tube. Fishermen may get irate if they’re around but the beauty of floating gently passed one of South Wales’ best castles through sleepy rural scenery is worth it – and remember that you have just as much right to be on the river as a fisherman whatever they might say!
Dryslwyn Community Shop! Back down in Dryslwyn village (the other side of the main A40, towards Cwt Henry) this wonderful shop and post office is entirely staffed by members of the community and serves a great variety of local produce. Especially good butter, meat and homebaked treats, and a model for how communities can successfully manage a vital business where local authorities fail. Grab some picnic snacks here.
Hiking! Two major hikes from here spring to mind, each connecting Dryslwyn Castle with a nearby landmark.
To Paxton’s Tower: Paxton’s Tower, a folly cresting the ridge of hills to the south, is deceptively close. You can drive to the Paxton’s Tower car park above the village of Llanarthney, or stay parked in the Dryslwyn Castle car park and follow the B4297 on the beautiful bridge over the Tywi to the crossroads with the B4300. An initially metalled track leads straight ahead up the hill, passing a farm yard and then twisting muddily up through the woods to the lane that runs along the ridge. Turn right on the lane, and follow it along the ridge to Paxton’s Tower. It’s about a two-hour walk, replete with gorgeous pastoral views and ancient woodland.
To Aberglasney Gardens: This was virtually our first hike in Wales after we moved here, not to mention the cover shoot for my second novel: it links the back of the castle with one of Carmarthenshire’s beautiful public gardens (the National Botanic Gardnes of Wales are also hereabouts). Park in either Dryslwyn Castle car park or Aberglasney Gardens car park. From the top of Dryslwyn Castle, elect what seems to be just another sheep track tracing northeast through the outer ward and former village site (the part of the castle furthest from the car park). This slowly becomes a defined crease in the hill and a distinct track, the former main entrance to the castle. It curves down around to the other side of the hill to a house at the foot and enters onto a minor lane through a kiss gate. Turn right on this lane. Continue past a newly converted house and a farm, climbing and then descending a rise, to reach a junction. Turn right here. Proceed past another house on a stretch of winsome country lane to the point where the lane divides into what appear to be two private driveways. The left-hand/straight-ahead option is not solely a private driveway. It is also a public footpath. Carry along this still-metalled drive towards a farm ahead but significantly before the farm, on the left-hand side of the lane, pass through a large double metal gate into a sheep field. The path continues up the hedge, which you keep on your right (the official path is poorly maintained so this option is preferable. Climb a steep slope and then pass through an open gateway, cutting diagonally across the subsequent meadow and aiming for the wood above. A decrepit gateway close to the lower corner of the field leads up over a stile into the wood above. The next section is through one of Carmarthenshire’s most glorious old beechwoods and, like the castle, exudes an ancient and almost primordial feel. Turn right to follow the faint path along the bottom of the wood, over a small bridge into a meadow, along the lower edge of the meadow and into a further expanse of ancient wood, rising eventually to a stile. Follow what now becomes a deeply rutted farm track through a couple more fields to lead through a gate on a now metalled lane down to the back of Aberglasney Gardens. The gardens have a wonderful tearoom (we will feature this on the site soon, promise) for halfway refreshment.
At a glance
How to get there: From Carmarthen, head 10 miles west on the A40 to the turn-off on the outskirts of the village of Dryslwyn (at the crossroads, the community shop is left, about a hundred metres up, and Dryslwyn Castle is right, about a mile along the B4297. The car park is on the right just before the bridge over the Tywi. Cross the Tywi, and you’ve gone too far.
Parking: A good shady car park by the river on the other side of the B4297 below the castle.
Refreshments: Bring your own picnic (stock up at the Dryslwyn Community Shop or dine out in style at upmarket bistro Wrights Emporium 2 miles west in Llanarthney.
Best time to visit: Any time of year. Summer, and the sun shimmers on the Tywi snaking into the distance in both directions; winter and it’s a poignant, wind-tossed, atmospheric spot too.