Family Day Trips from Bristol: Caerphilly Castle and Cyfarthfa Castle (The Valleys, Wales)
Updated: Sep 6, 2019
It's just a short trip across the Severn Bridge from Bristol to Wales, but I'm guilty of not venturing west from the city very often. So when The Valleys invited me to visit in order to explore two castles in one day, I immediately said yes! Nowhere does castles quite like Wales, so we were all excited as we set off on our day trip early one Saturday morning in August.
Our first destination was Caerphilly Castle, an easy one hour car journey from Bristol. Dominating the town centre on a 30 acre site, it is Wales' largest castle and the second largest in Britain behind Windsor. It was built mainly between 1268 and 1271 and the design is based on a concentric ring of walls, not seen before in Britain, and making it virtually impregnable. The medieval fortress is the symbol of Caerphilly and has appeared in popular TV shows including Doctor Who and Merlin.
This almost complete medieval castle is surrounded by a series of moats and watery islands and it feels like you're setting off on an adventure as soon as you cross the first moat to the outer gatehouse. We were greeted by the friendly staff in the ticket office (a family ticket for 2 adults and 2 children is £25.70 and under fives are free), and the boys were given a trail to complete. These are always a great idea to keep the kids busy and this one was a bit different to the norm. There was no scrabbling around for a pen to write down the answers as the 'Caerphilly Castle Quest' comprises a series of flaps to open once you have solved various clues which are hidden around the castle.
We set off on our quest and soon discovered the Dragon's Lair (watch out for plenty of wild dragons!) followed by the famous leaning tower. Dubbed the 'Welsh Tower of Pisa', it's estimated the ruined south east tower leans at least 10 degrees. According to local legend, the damage was caused during 17th century battles between Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads and King Charles I's Cavaliers (although it may just be from subsidence). I prefer the first story, but whatever the cause, the effect is extremely impressive up close.
It was time to do a bit of exploring inside, and although the Great Hall was closing in preparation for a wedding on Saturday afternoon, we managed a sneak peek inside the beautiful room, before climbing up the tower of the main gatehouse to admire the incredible sight of the castle spread out below. There are also fantastic views of the Welsh countryside and we saw a couple of anglers fishing in the moats too!
The castle is great fun to explore, with lots of steps to climb (not recommended for those with restricted mobility or very little ones as there are some steep drops and it was quite slippery in places when we visited, due to rain the day before). We navigated our way through the narrow passages, and back down via Gilbert de Clare's private apartments which he built for himself between 1277 and 1290. It wasn't hard to imagine what they must have looked like with the remaining large windows and fireplaces hinting at how splendid they would have been inside at the time.
Back outside, we headed to Gilbert's Maze where our challenge was to outwit De Clare's defences and capture the castle! Amazingly we managed it (!) which was something his enemies never managed when he lived there. My kids really enjoyed this maze, especially as there are various activities as you navigate around, including (safely) firing arrows.
Afterwards we walked around to the other side of the castle, and found 'Fortitude', an amazing sandstone statue of a 13th century soldier taking cover from a hail of arrows coming from the wall above. I think imagining this scene really helped to put the history of Caerphilly Castle into perspective for all of us. The fact that this mighty fortress is still standing after 750 years (thanks to extensive restoration and conservation work) is something we should all be grateful for.
The second castle of the day was calling, so we somewhat reluctantly left Caerphilly, but not before we went to The Visitor Centre for lunch. It's situated right opposite the castle, so has amazing views, as well as fantastic food and friendly local staff who can provide you with any help or advice you need whilst visiting the town. We enjoyed a lovely spread (top tip: make sure you try the scones with clotted cream and 'Welsh Lady' strawberry jam - they were absolutely delicious!)
Our next destination was Cyfarthfa Castle, approximately 30 minutes drive from Caerphilly if you use the A470. We decided to take the A469 which is an interesting but slightly more indirect route (around 45 minutes) through the Rhymney Valley. Cyfartha Park was easy to find and there was plenty of car parking available. As well as the castle, there are 160 acres of beautiful parkland to explore with a splash pad, playground and miniature railway to keep the kids happy.
The Grade I listed Cyfarthfa Castle was once home to the Crawshay family (owners of Cyfarthfa Ironworks), and is recognised as being the best example of a 19th century Ironmaster's residence in South Wales. It is now a museum and art gallery (admission is £2.20 for adults and free for under-16s) with an eclectic collection of art and some truly unique objects.
The museum is housed in the basement and contains a lot of interesting and detailed information about Merthyr Tydfil's industrial history, with a couple of interactive displays which the kids enjoyed. As you walk further through the house, the collection becomes more diverse but no less interesting. We saw everything from a dress worn by Kylie Minogue to roman remains, and we ended our tour in the art gallery which housed traditional works, as well as showcasing imaginative work by local schoolchildren.
When you visit Cyfarthfa, don't miss the tea rooms downstairs which serve tea in the most beautiful china sets and have a good selection of cakes and ice cream flavours too. Once we'd sampled some Bara Brith (Welsh fruit cake), we went outside to find the miniature railway which cost £1.50 per person for a fun ride around a small section of the park. There was so much more to see including a huge lake and many walking trails but we were running out of time (and steam!) on what had been a long hot day. There is no doubt we will be returning to explore more of this gorgeous park, as it could be a day trip on its own.
Every time I go to Wales, I always wonder why I don't visit more often, and this time was no exception. We loved both castles which were completely different and had something for everyone. Head to Caerphilly Castle for a traditional medieval experience or discover Cyfarthfa for more recent Welsh history in idyllic surroundings. It's certainly possible to visit both in one day as we did, but I'd probably recommend allowing more time for Cyfarthfa if you want to enjoy all of the outdoor activities too.
This is the second article in a series exploring day trips from Bristol. Check out my verdict on Longleat here and keep your eyes peeled for a trip to Gloucestershire - coming soon!
Disclaimer: Complimentary entry to both castles, lunch, and refreshments were provided by The Valleys in return for an honest review. All thoughts and photos are my own.