Cardigan does not, in fairness, much seem today like it ever could have hosted Wales’ biggest and best party. But back in 1176, the influential Lord Rhys, prince of most of South Wales, was at the zenith of his power and desired to host a cultural event to cement his status as the greatest Welsh ruler. And he chose Cardigan Castle as the venue. What happened next was a celebration of epic proportions – an extravaganza of music, performance poetry and revelry – that would go down in history as the first Eisteddfod, Wales’ premier cultural event to this day. The fascinating tale of this lively period in Cardigan’s history is now retold to visitors as they explore the brilliantly restored castle. But people are less aware that they can also spend the night within this storied address.
Why we love it…
At Undiscovered Wales we are pretty passionate about our history. How could we not be, living in and writing about a nation that has so much of it? True: plenty of the country houses and country hotels featured on the site have history in abundance. But we found out about them first and foremost as places to stay, whereas the special thing for us with Cardigan Castle was that it is much better-known as a tourist attraction, with the potential to spend the night there an irresistible extra. So a day spent roaming around the castle and reliving its medieval heyday segued into a late afternoon lingering over drinks in the restaurant (appropriately called 1176!) which in turn led to us getting this historically intriguing site all to ourselves as the attraction became our accommodation. A day out without going outside the walls! The castle is eye candy for archaeologists, being a patchwork of historic periods from 12th-century battlements to 19th-century houses, and this rich heritage surrounds you as you sleep – yet in a surprise twist the rooms are modern, light and spacious.
And this writer should also, in the interests of impartiality, add that, as Cardigan Castle serves as the setting for at least half of his last novel, staying within it was akin to becoming a character in his own book for the night (well known to be a writer’s great pleasure).
Everyone at Cardigan Castle is understandably proud of the castle’s extensive restoration – it only reopened in 2015 – and that comes across. Staff have that bubbling passion for explaining all about the attraction, its history and facilities that goes beyond what you would expect. The town of Cardigan certainly needed this cultural boost, and there is a palpable sense of the importance of the project to this part of Ceredigion. This does not mean there is any in-your-face ranting about refurbishment to guests. On the contrary, as the site within the castle walls is a large one the accommodation is well spaced out from the restaurant, shop and castle museum displays so that they all feel like their own entities: no one infringes on any other. And whilst the fortress stands sentinel on the town’s main thoroughfare, those thick bulky fortifications filter out the hubbub, and inside the central grassy gardens and accommodation it is very quiet.
Parking is a bit of an issue, and we suggest the bays just to the right after you cross the River Teifi on the old town bridge/Castle Street (you’ll have to go right around the Cardigan one-way system to access them) whilst you stop to get the code for the gate which opens to let you into a very narrow entranceway to the castle car park. Call in at the castle shop on arrival and you will be shown to your room. The welcome process is invariably carried out with the above-mentioned pride and passion for the place!
A little history
The ancient Welsh province of Deheubarth was reaching its pinnacle in the 1170’s. Under the rule of Rhys ap Gruffyd, or Lord Rhys as he is better known, most of South Wales had come within his domain. There had been no greater, more powerful or more influential territory within Wales for a long time beforehand – nor would there be for some time after his death. Whilst Dinefwr Castle (in modern-day Llandeilo) was Deheubarth’s capital, in the 1160’s Rhys had retaken Cardigan, on the very edge of his domain and close to Norman-held Pembrokeshire, back from the Normans. When he wanted to host a cultural event to underline his greatness as a ruler in 1176, he chose Cardigan, and the castle he had recently rebuilt in stone in 1171, seemingly to rub the Normans’ faces in it. The event he held became the precursor to the modern Eisteddfod, one of the biggest cultural events of its kind anywhere in the world. This was Cardigan Castle’s colossal contribution to Welsh heritage, and near what is today an events space within the castle complex is the site thought to have been where Lord Rhys held his festivities. The 850 year-old castle contains many traces from this period in its history, but also from the Victorian era (including where the B&B accommodation is).
There are two sorts of accommodation within the castle: bed & breakfast rooms (three) and holiday lets (five, available on a weekly basis). We took the b&b. These two rooms are stashed away in the stone-built Tŷ Castell building, after the castle entrance on the right and a few steps from the fetching central courtyard. Tŷ Castell was one of Cardigan Castle’s 19th century additions but these tucked-away rooms are no gloomy garrets; their light, bright decoration makes Yr Afon and Yr Cei (where we stayed) appear still more spacious than they are. Expect sash windows, pine furniture and pleasing teal tones in the fabrics combining for a contemporary look. This is heritage accommodation, though, so stairs to these first-floor rooms are steep. A third family room is available on the upper floor here, and across the road from the castle entrance in a townhouse are further bed and breakfast rooms. Of the five self catering lets, our favourite is East Wing with its own hot tub affording views of the castle’s lovely (and sizeable) gardens.
1176 is where meals take place: a contemporary glassy space letting the ancient stony bulwarks of the castle nevertheless frame the fantastic views of either the winsome courtyard or the town and the Teifi. Normally, you’ll experience 1176 if you are staying when it serves as the space in which breakfast is served (unless you plump for the option to have it delivered to your room in a hamper!) Sundays through Wednesdays they are open 9am to 4pm, but on the other days they stay open until 9pm, making this a dinner option too.
Breakfast-wise, tuck into a full Welsh, poached eggs and haddock or eggs Benedict with brioche.
What’s here and nearby
You are within one of the monumental castles of Welsh history. Displays document that seminal first Eisteddfod in 1176. This event stood out in the Welsh chronicles as one of the country’s cultural apogees of medieval times – and was the forerunner of an annual event which is today by far Wales’ biggest. At this occasion and at others, the castle hosted some of the greatest personalities of the Welsh medieval world. It is likely Gerald of Wales, the chronicler who provides the most complete accounts of life in Wales in the 12th century, as well as French writer Chrétien de Troyes visited here. So save time to explore the castle. Cardigan is also close to some stunning undiscovered coast, such as Mwnt Beach, whilst south along the Teifi into Pembrokeshire is the pretty village of St Dogmaels with its abbey and fabulous market.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the castle gates, it’s 5 miles northeast to the gorgeous Mwnt Beach
At a glance
Snooze factor: 8 Surprisingly serene compared to the main road outside. Still, factors such as castle events and a tad of light chinking through the curtains lower the mark marginally.
Food factor: 8.5 1176 is the designated breakfast place, and it is Cardigan’s best and most characterful.
Eco-friendly factor: 6 No particular eco-friendly measures we’re aware of, but an intuitive and sensitive use of the existing buildings in the accommodation and in the castle’s other 21st-century additions.
Location factor: 8 Castles invariably boast impressive locations: no exception here. Here you’re overlooking the river yet a stone’s throw from the town centre.
Price: From £80 per room (bed and breakfast) and from £450 a week for the holiday lets.
MORE ON CASTLES
Explore: Dryslwyn Castle, one of the greatest Welsh-built fortresses (South Wales)
Sleep: Roch Castle Hotel: 21st-century flair in a 12th-century fortress (Pembrokeshire)