The surprise, with Roch Castle, is not that it exists. No retiring violet, it stands prominently out of the rolling patchwork of Southwest Pembrokeshire farmland whether you are approaching from the northeast (St Davids) or southwest (Haverfordwest). What is eye-opening is that an ancient, embattled stronghold like this could be so slick and contemporary within. And that you can stay there.
Why we love it…
The first impressions from the St Davids direction are of a sharp climb from the wide, crashing sandy bay of Newgale over a blind summit, after which the castle hits you smack bang in the centre of your vision; from the Haverfordwest direction the initial view is more surreal as the fortress appears to be rising right out of the modern and unremarkable village of Roch – more like a fairy-tale fantasy than a place you could stay at.
But proceed through Roch village to the imposing double iron gates, press the entry buzzer, follow your way up the winding drive with this castle-cum-hotel’s bulky walls now rearing right above you, and become immersed in a tree-fringed Pembrokeshire sanctuary that has remarkably seemed to stick clear of tourist hordes (who perhaps, if they passed by, just thought staying here would never be a possibility). Well, it is. And even were each of the castle’s six rooms booked up during your time here, nowhere we have stayed at Undiscovered Wales, in many years of sampling the country’s coolest, quirkiest and most characterful accommodations, has quite the same ability to swallow other guests and make you feel as though you are the only ones here. Like you are kings or queens of the castle with the whole fortress to yourself.
So expect an elegantly modern interior, and expect quietude (those thick centuries-old walls might have thwarted sieges back in the day but now their main asset is muffling sound: you will not get a more peaceful stay within a village location in Wales). But still expect for everything to be subtly blended into environs where the history has not been plastered over, but resonates powerfully yet.
The history… a little more of it
The people at Roch Castle have actually had a very thorough history of the building compiled, but because the past is such a fundamental part of its character, here is a little. Raised in around 1195, its original purpose, being located on the ‘Landsker Line’, the divide between Norman-controlled Wales and native Welsh Wales, would have been defence. And it saw plenty of action, skirmishes and raids that culminated in an attack by Cromwell during the English Civil War, when it was also a Royalist stronghold. Read more about the history here.
The ground rises steeply outside from castle front to castle back so that the actual entrance (at the rear) is a good third of the way up the fortress. And therefore this is a place where perspective is thwarted, where there always seems like there is a new level to discover, and importantly, where guests on those other levels always feel far removed, thus emphasising the tranquility.
It is an interesting location, too, as you will soon be appreciating from the panoramic views in the upper echelons: neither coastal (although with cracking views of the vast arc of Newgale beach) nor inland (although with the yellow-green folds of rural Pembrokeshire undulating away up towards the Preseli Hills from the edge of the grounds).
So you have entered a luxurious castle about a third of the way up its tower. You are in a rather novel reception area, where a window lets you look in on an area of the original castle ruins (showing you just how much refurbishment work was necessary!) and the owner’s playful coat of arms adorns the wall. A member of staff will emerge (as if from nowhere) and their kindness and professionalism as they introduce you to the hotel and tell you about the surrounding area will not go un-noticed. No blank stares when you ask about the history (if you still have any questions after reading this!) or where to go to eat (we recommend Solva, see our Next on the Journey section below). Staff make you feel like staying in a castle should make you feel: like you are having a special, unique experience. An experience exceptional enough to tell others about.
We have stayed in two of the six bedrooms: St Davids, which is along with St Brides in the lower portion of the hotel, and Ap Gruffydd, in the middle of the castle above the lounge. Also in the upper part are (from highest to lowest) De Rupe, Lucy Walter and Nest.
Hands (and arms!) down we like Ap Gruffydd, named after the last prince of Wales, Llywelyn, most. It is the largest room but also has windows out both south over Roch village and southwest along to what was a very wild Newgale Beach when we were last there. There is something magisterial in how the placid farmland dips down to such a tempestuous curve of sand hereabouts. The room has two large semi-circular alcoves leading off from the main area, one with a chair and tables and one containing the coffee machine, fridge and a further chair gazing over Pembrokeshire. It also has a super king size bed and a bath as well as a shower. The style, as with other rooms at Roch Castle, is pared-down chocolate browns and that elusive dove-grey-mauve which evokes images of the Caerbwdi stone that distinguishes this part of the Pembrokeshire coastline. But crucially the pared-down-ness allows the original contours of the building to speak for themselves: a theme across each of the castles many floors and spaces.
One very lovely element of a Roch stay is that you never once have to think in vexation ‘where is such-and-such a feature?’ or “I’m paying good money for this so why isn’t there that?’ The hallmark of a brilliant place to stay sometimes lies in your not noticing notice things. You do not notice, for example, that the tea and coffee facilities are wanting, because they are first class. There are nespresso machines always topped up with four to six coffee pods, an array of seven or eight teas, bottled water and milk in the fridge and (we have to come clean and say we particularly loved this) healthy supplies of the biscuit said to be the world’s oldest, the scallop shell-shaped 13th-century-originating Aberffraw Biscuit. You do not notice, for example, an absence of decent toiletries because the Aromatherapy Associates bath and shower products are some of Britain’s best-regarded. There is gentle ambient welcome music playing from the Roch Castle radios as you enter the rooms, and there are flatscreen TVs (although the far-better channel is the view out of the windows) and the wifi is a no-nonsense immediate click and connect.
You should spend a long time in your bedroom room, because it is that nice (just factor it into your days’ plans) but you might want to wander too. Steep, twisting castle staircases soar and plunge to serendipitous alcoves and to a second-floor wide-open lounge. Here there is (in normal, non-Covid-19 times) a formidable library of fascinating local history books, sequestered away in an arched recess, but these have had to be removed temporarily). The lounge leads into a light glassed-over space with a long table that could be used for conferences, surrounded by the castle ramparts. This area is vintage Roch Castle, marrying modern business-like interior with passage out onto the battlements themselves. It is a serene area to relax in the evening.
Only breakfast is served at Roch Castle, and this is included in the price of your stay (evening meals can be had at the sister hotel, Twr y Felin, at the top of St Davids, a 20-minute drive away).
But the breakfast is hearty.
Order what you like from a menu that includes pastries, honey from the Cleddau Estuary, Llaeth y Llan yoghurts, the Welsh seaweed delicacy of laverbread along with fat, scrumptuous Pembrokeshire sausage and intuitively cooked bacon (in the Full Welsh) or bacon smothered in laverbread. Richly berry-fortified fruit bowls are also an option. You might also be able to sample another Welsh breakfast staple, cockles!
What’s here and nearby
Do spare some time for taking in the castle grounds (there are benches in the lower, tree-dotted areas) or clambering onto the crag opposite the entrance for some brilliant vistas of rural Pembrokeshire. You can quite easily connect up with the Pembrokeshire Coast Path here (a 2-mile walk back through Roch village and straight over the main road). Huge and stunning Newgale Beach is a medium-length walk or a 5-minute drive from here. From Newgale along to Solva is one of the most delightful stages of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, too. Solva is a delightful fishing village with a few atmospheric places to eat, drink and shop – and it also boasts on of Wales’ most interesting woollen mills.
Covid-19 note: The castle pays particular attention to detail to ensure guest safety: guests must wear masks in public areas, staff wear visors, there is hand sanitiser everywhere and there are sanitation kits with masks in the rooms.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: It’s only 6 miles northwest along the coast to Solva and to the welshcake capital of the world at MamGu cafe.
At a glance
Snooze factor: 10 Try and find a more silent place to stay, just try.
Food factor: 8 The breakfast is delicious, and what we especially like is the effort to embrace Welshness and typical Welsh cuisine.
Eco-friendly factor: 8 Just preserving a beautiful old building like this rather than knocking it down and building something cheap and character-devoid, gets Roch this mark. The undulating gardens wrap everything in a fresh, peaceful green.
Location factor: 9 A castle in its own grounds – it doesn’t get much more eclectic than that.
Price: Double rooms from £230 to £260. 2-day minimum stay.
MORE ON CASTLES
Explore: Dryslwyn Castle, one of the greatest Welsh-built fortresses (South Wales)
Explore: An alluring coastal castle, Llansteffan, and a lovely 7/13km hike around it (South Wales)