A Tale of Two Castles

In which The Author takes another day trip

A couple of weeks ago, as I told you in A Bridgend Too Far, I decided to take the camera for an afternoon out in Bridgend. Along with most of the major towns in what used to be Mid Glamorgan, I’ve been there dozens of times over the years. However, until recently I’d never really taken much notice of the architecture and the historic aspects of the places I used to visit regularly. I used to go for the occasional day out on the bus for a change from Aberdare, as there’d be interesting shops to browse in, and pubs with character (and characters) to have a pint in before heading home. That was a couple of decades ago, mind. I haven’t bothered doing that for ages.
The whole Clone Town effect has done a great deal to homogenise our town centres (see Location, Location, Location). Once you’ve seen one aluminium and plate glass chain store window display, you really have seen them all. (I’m not making this up. Some years ago, I walked past the Aberdare branch of New Look on a Sunday afternoon. The display was being changed, and whoever was responsible for it had left the checklist in the window. There was a diagram showing how the mannequins were to be dressed, and a list of all the branches – pretty much everywhere south of a line connecting the Mersey and the Wash – which were expected to implement the centrally-approved design.)
The simultaneous growth of out-of-town shopping complexes like the retail park outside Merthyr, a ten-minute drive away from Aberdare, has sucked out much of the remaining life. Meanwhile, the depression (I’m not going to pussyfoot around and call it ‘the economic downturn’ any more) has all but destroyed the pub trade, except for chain pubs and theme bars. As time went by, the fun went out of the day trips, and I stopped doing them altogether. There wasn’t really much point of spending an hour on a bus, only to arrive in more or less the same place you’d left earlier.
It’s only since I’ve had a decent digital camera, and plenty of spare time, that I’ve really started to travel about again. Last summer I decided it was a good time to do some concerted work on the Vanishing Valleys Project. I outlined the idea behind it in Where Do We Draw The Line?, and I’ve accumulated several thousand photos already. I won’t be using them all in the finished project, of course, but two of my friends have offered to host my website, and Flickr gives the user a whole terabyte of online storage to play with. I just need to get the website hosted as a placeholder, and redirect visitors to Flickr, in order to showcase my photos. Anyway, since I’d only covered part of Bridgend on my previous visit, and on the grounds that Saturday was a glorious day, I decided to get out of town early and make the most of the weather.
Bridgend is a decent place to travel to, barely an hour and a half by train from Aberdare via Cardiff. It’s an interesting, historic and quite unusual town near the Glamorgan coast – a kind of transition point between the industrial valleys to the north, and the farmlands in the Vale of Glamorgan a few miles to the south. This made it a strategic location in early medieval times, when the Normans were consolidating their hold on the Welsh lowlands. Before I headed down there again, I had a quick look at John Newman’s Glamorgan, one volume of Penguin’s Buildings of Wales series of books, so that I had a bit more background knowledge.
There’s an area of the town called Oldcastle, between the railway station and the River Ogwr, but according to Mr Newman, there’s little evidence of the old castle itself. Even so, it seemed like a good place to start exploring once I left the station. As soon as you hit the town you’re confronted by some impressive specimens of Victorian architecture, like this old Post Office and solicitors’ offices:

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On my previous visit, on my way to catch the train home, I’d noticed an unusual monument at the foot of the hill leading to the station. It had been too dark to see it properly, so I decided to investigate it properly.

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Not surprisingly, there’s an interesting story behind this example of Victorian High Gothic extravagance, and it’s outlined on the plaque inset into the column:

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In Aberdare, some of our street names have associations with the Marquis of Bute. Similarly, Bridgend commemorates the Earls of Dunraven, some of whom served as Members of Parliament for the area: thus, there are Wyndham Street, Adare Street, and Dunraven Street itself. I found the background to this monument rather touching, personally.
I made my way into the town centre, which seems rather haphazardly laid out – as Mr Newman politely puts it, ‘No perambulation of Bridgend is practical’. After a few minutes of wandering I found the covered market, which has been cleverly incorporated into a modern shopping arcade. I decided to have a look around a surprisingly bustling collection of stalls, a cafe, and a nice little second-hand bookstall. I picked up L.T.C. Rolt’s biography of Thomas Telford for 50p. I’ve got his life of Brunel at home, but I’d never seen the other one before.
From there, I emerged onto Nolton Street, which runs south out of the town centre. There’s a modern shopping block there, with a Wilkinson, a Cash Generator, some other chain stores, and the offices of the Glamorgan Gazette. At least the local newspaper, a sister to the Cynon Valley Leader, still has a visible presence in the town.
I’ve got a theory that every town needs at least one street, preferably on the outskirts, which is home to the tattoo studio, a dodgy takeaway, and a newsagent with an impressive range of ‘marginal interest’ magazines on the top shelf. In Aberdare, the lower end of Cardiff Street used to fill the vacuum admirably. The Copper Kettle’s range of specialist magazines isn’t what it used to be, though. My observation was confirmed in Shrewsbury, on my one and only visit nearly two decades ago; it was true of Bristol last time I was there; in Cardiff, Caroline Street fits the bill nicely (see One Night a DVD Saved My Bacon).
In Bridgend, Nolton Street has a tattoo studio and a rather seedy-looking Chinese takeaway, but I couldn’t find a paper shop with a large porn selection. There was a Spar a bit further long, just past the junction with Cowbridge Road, but I didn’t go in there. Instead, I was intrigued by a tall cylinder topped by a silver cone, a few hundred yards past the junction.
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St Mary’s RC Church
I’ve always been baffled by the way the 20th Century Roman Catholic Church embraced bold modern styles in their buildings, like ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’ in Liverpool, St Theresa’s Church in Hirwaun, and this one, while staying resolutely in the Middle Ages on issues of doctrine. (I suppose that would be an ecumenical matter.)
Once I’d passed the church, I found myself on a wide road lined with grand houses, and I doubted whether I’d see much more of interest there. I turned back and spotted a more traditional church spire over the rooftops. I followed my nose and soon arrived at St Mary’s Church, Nolton, in the parish of Coity, Nolton and Brackla.

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This was more like the sort of church I’d been expecting to find in a Welsh town – solid, Victorian, High Anglican, and clearly built to impress. It was completed in 1877, some twenty years after St Elvan’s in Aberdare; the architect was John Pritchard, who was also responsible for the renovation of Llandaff Cathedral, and by this time he’d really found his distinctive style. There were some nice details on the door and window surrounds, like these carved figureheads flanking the north door:

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The west front of the church really hits you for six when you approach it from the busy road junction it overlooks.

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Somehow St Elvan’s, perched on a low mound and surrounded by shops on three sides, doesn’t have quite the same impact at street level.

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There was a medieval-looking building opposite the north wall of the church, on Merthyr Mawr Road North, and I pondered whether or not to take a photo of it. I didn’t think it was anything noteworthy, so I didn’t bother. On referring to Mr Newman’s book again today, I found that it was the Tithe Barn – which is thought to be constructed from stone reclaimed from the old castle. I need to take a third trip (at least) to tie up some loose ends, so I’ll make a point of it next time.
I made my way back into Nolton Street, where I’d spotted the distinctive roof of a chapel set back from the rest of the shop fronts.

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It looks as though it’s been adopted by an evangelical church, judging from the banners on the railings. These South Wales chapels are unmistakable and interchangeable at the same time – a triumph of function over form, in stark contrast to the High Victorian style of St Mary’s Nolton, only a couple of hundred yards away. Just to prove that Nolton Street is in fact the holiest street in Bridgend, there’s a Christadelphian Meeting Hall here as well, looking unfortunately like a block of public toilets:

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I’d passed a number of pubs while I was exploring Nolton Street: the Old Castle, the Five Bells, the Welcome To Town Inn, and an Oirish pub called Molloy’s. Of them all, Molloy’s seemed to be the most inviting (as well as being named after a novel by Samuel Beckett), so I decided to call in for a glass of Coke. The prices were reasonable and they had very fast WiFi, so I was able to do a couple of software updates while I was sitting at my table. There were some middle-aged couples having lunch, and I overheard them praising the chips while I was watching the update processes running in the Ubuntu Terminal.
[A digression: Even though there’s a perfectly serviceable Update Manager and Software Centre in Ubuntu, I always do my updates through Terminal. You can see the code being implemented in real time on the screen, like some cobbled-together computer hack from an episode of Spooks. It’s quite impressive and rather hypnotic to watch. Moreover, a casual observer glancing over my shoulder would get the understandable misapprehension that I actually know what I’m doing!]
I decided to order some chips, and thought that it would be interesting to compare them with the disappointing offering I’d had in Wetherspoon on my earlier visit to town. There was, in fact, no comparison. In Wetherspoon I’d paid £2.80 for thirteen bought-in frozen chips in a large ceramic bowl, which only served to emphasise the miserly portion control. In Molloy’s I had a substantial helping of hand-cut freshly-cooked chips, and paid only £1.50. In addition, the barbint and the landlord were friendly and chatty, and genuinely made their customers feel at home. It might not have been a genuine Irish pub (that hasn’t been the case since Dave and Mary Tobin left Kitty Flynn’s) but it was as near to the real thing as made no odds.
Fed and watered, I decided to do some more exploring. I’d remembered to take my old Manderley Press street map with me, so I set off down Cowbridge Road to see if there was anything worth recording. The first thing I came to was a pub called the Coach. Formerly The Coach and Horses, it’s been revamped and seems to be aiming at a youngish crowd, with Sky TV and live music at weekends. I didn’t call in there, but carried on walking through the long terrace until I reached Bridgend College. It’s a large complex of buildings, including a cafe, the Sony Theatre (Sony were formerly one of the town’s major employers), and (according to a first floor window) a forensic science laboratory.

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Just beyond the college the road sloped gently towards a railway bridge. A quick glance at the map confirmed that the bridge carried the line southwards into the Vale of Glamorgan. That was going to be my route home later on. Just past the bridge I spotted another large complex of red brick buildings, punctuated with a couple of modern additions. The large number of cars parked outside, both civilian and marked, saved me from having to refer to the map; it was the headquarters of South Wales Police.

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At the side of the road, just outside the fence, I found this interesting old milestone. The odd thing is, even though Bridgend is considerably further west than Aberdare, according to this landmark it’s closer to London than my home town. It’s a mystery …

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I carried on walking for another few minutes until I arrived at a large traffic roundabout. On a weekday, I expect it would have been a bit of a death-trap for the unwary pedestrian; even on a Saturday afternoon there was plenty of traffic around. I managed to cross to the other side in several stages, where I found nothing more interesting than an out-of-town retail park, a Toby Inn, and (behind a high hedge) the home ground of South Wales Police RFC.
It turned out that I was on Waterton Road, which leads directly to Cowbridge, There was, as South Wales’ finest might have said, nothing here to see. Even so, I found a gate into the rugby field (there wasn’t a game on) and took a couple of atmospheric photos of the stand, like this one:

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As you can see, it was starting to cloud over, and when I looked back towards the town it seemed as though a thunderstorm was building up. I decided to retrace my steps before it hammered down, as I didn’t fancy sheltering in a Toby Inn (or a large branch of Argos, which was the nearest alternative).

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Once I’d passed the college again, I decided to take the minor road to my right, past a small cluster of allotments. Now I found myself in that strange out-of-town hinterland of warehouses and tool hire shops, car showrooms and builders’ merchants, which seems to make up the ‘inner zone’ of most South Wales towns. There was a huge ASDA supermarket in a hollow alongside the railway line, and a small gang of teenagers were ridingbikes between the deserted warehouses on the other side of the road.
The map shows two railway bridges in close proximity, and I wondered whether there’d be much rail traffic on a Saturday. Sure enough, just as I arrived at the first bridge, I was in time to catch a cargo of steel coil making its way east along the main line, presumably from the works at Port Talbot. Unfortunately, I was too late with the camera. Undeterred, I made my way across and headed for the second bridge, which is surprisingly narrow. A family were wheeling their bikes towards me, and there was barely room for one lane of traffic to pass them gingerly.
When I got to the other side of the bridge I realized that I was in Tremains. Back in the old days of the anarcho-punk scene, our friends from the band Life Cycle had lived somewhere on this estate, and we’d dropped in to see them one Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t remember the name of the street, but I knew their local pub had been called the Haywain (or, as they called it, ‘the Wayhay!’) A quick look at the map told me that I’d travelled in a big circle, and that if I followed the main road I’d emerge at the shopping block with the Gazette offices. I made my way as far as the bridge over the railway line, where I was able to get a really decent shot of Bridgend East Junction:
Bridgend East Junction, from the north. The South Wales main line curves round to the east; the other branch leads to the Vale of Glamorgan.
Bridgend East Junction, from the north.
The South Wales main line curves round to the east;
the other branch leads to the Vale of Glamorgan.
Bridgend Station, view from the south.
Bridgend Station, view from the south.
The train standing at the platform is heading west.
The platform and line at the left of the picture serve the Vale of Glamorgan branch.
The road leading from Tremains is another cluster of motor dealerships, DIY stores and garages, and there’s a huge Castle Bingo at the crest of the hill. From there, I passed the probation office and descended back into town, past a pub called the Coity Castle.
The ruins of Coity Castle itself lie some distance to the east of the town, and it’s another place I’ve pencilled in for my next visit. For now, though, I walked under the railway bridge and back towards the town centre. The river Ogwr skirts the centre, set below road level and enclosed in a modern concrete watercourse. There’s a huge Tesco on the other side of the main road, adjoining the Brewery Field rugby ground, so I cut through the car park towards the ground. The side gates were locked, but I was able to get a photo of the spectators through the bars.

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Alongside the rugby ground, there’s a curious metal bridge over the river, leading to some very interesting buildings. Mr Newman’s book doesn’t mention these, so I’m going to try and do some more research when I have time.

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There’s a crest with the words ‘Bridgend and Cowbridge’ on the front of this row of houses, which are now sheltered accommodation for elderly people. I couldn’t make it out clearly, but I’ve got a feeling they might have been almshouses of some sort.

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A little further along the river is another striking building, with the words “Union Offices” still legible in the stonework. I need to find out more about this as well …

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On my previous visit to Bridgend, I’d tried to photograph the eye-catching church on the hill. Unfortunately, on the day, it was too damp and misty to make the photograph worthwhile. On Saturday I was more fortunate. The cloud had dispersed by late afternoon, and I was able to get a nice shot of the church, high above the town centre.

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Not far from this little row of houses I spotted a row of stone steps carved into the hillside. I’d already guessed where they would lead me, but a friendly passing PCSO told me that climbing them would take me to the church – and, even better, the ruins of the castle, which you can just see in the right of the photo.
It took me a minute to reach the top, and I found myself in a mysterious part of the town. The map labelled it as ‘Newcastle’, but as there are no contours on the Manderley maps, I hadn’t expected it to be on such high ground. The houses nearby seem to be older than those in the rest of town, like this one at the top of Newcastle Hill.

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On a little patch of open ground there was an odd metal structure standing beside a path running alongside the church wall.
Could this be a beacon? If it was lit, it would be visible for miles around.
Could this be a beacon? If it was lit, it would be visible for miles around.
I passed the main gate to St Illtyd’s churchyard and decided to investigate the castle first. I was glad I did, because a Cadw sign near the entrance announced that it was open between 10 a.m. and 4.00 p.m, every day except the Xmas and New Year holidays. I glanced at the time on my phone; it was 3.59 p.m. It wasn’t the first time I’d miscalculated badly. I wasn’t the only one to have made the same mistake, however; a young Polish girl arrived at the gates within seconds of me. We exchanged a few words (which is how I know she was Polish) before entering the site cautiously. After all, if anyone did turn up to lock the gate, I was fairly sure they’d have a look around inside beforehand. A night locked inside the ruins of a medieval castle with a pretty blonde might make for an interesting short story, but it looked as thought it was going to be a cold night. I for one didn’t fancy the idea of shinning over the wall. We decided to risk it anyway, and walked into the enclosure.

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There’s not much left of the castle, of course, but you can still see the outlines of the internal floor plan in the springy turf that carpets the interior. The walls themselves were obviously built to withstand any attack from outside, and its vantage point overlooking the valley for miles around would have made it a perfect strategic stronghold in which to ride out a siege. The villagers and their livestock would have piled inside the ramparts, closed the gates, and sooner or later the rebellious Welsh would have got fed up and gone away.
Together with Llantrisant Castle, also built on high ground overlooking the Vale of Glamorgan, Coity Castle, a couple of miles to the east of Bridgend, and Ogmore Castle near the coast, Newcastle would have formed part of an impregnable barrier dividing the Norman territory from the Celtic uplands.

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There were some young lads playing inside the castle grounds, so it seemed that we were fairly safe to take photos before the caretaker arrived to lock up. Like most castles in the care of Cadw, the interesting bits have been fenced off on health and safety grounds. It was a pity, because I’d have loved to have climbed the remains of the tower and taken a panoramic photo of the view from the top. As things were, the trees on the cliff edge blocked any decent view down into the town.
I decided I’d probably get a better view from the churchyard, so I left the castle, walked the short distance to the church, and pushed open the lych gate with some difficulty.

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I love exploring old churchyards, especially when they’re enclosed behind high walls and hidden from casual passers-by. The first thing I saw once I was inside was this lovely understated war memorial.

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The church itself is a hybrid of old and new; the tower is largely contemporary with the castle (twelfth century), but the rest was rebuilt in Victorian times. Here again, John Pritchard incorporated some nice details into the masonry.

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As Eric Morecambe might have said, ‘you can’t see the join’. The clock is wrong, by the way.
From the far wall of the churchyard, I got the view I’d been hoping for from the castle. You’ll see what I mean about its strategic position when you look at these few pictures:
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Looking roughly east, with the Brewery Field in the foreground.
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Looking roughly south across the town centre
Looking more or less due east, with Coity Castle in the centre of the picture
Looking more or less due east, with Coity Castle in the centre of the picture
A few minutes later, experimenting with different viewpoints, I looked down at Brewery Field in time to see the rival teams setting up a scrum.

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On my next visit, I’m going to pack my tripod, so that I can get some panoramic shots across the town.
I noticed the time was passing, so I decided to head back into town. I was aiming for the 4.45 train, so I had half an hour or so to make it back to the station. I headed down Newcastle Hill and emerged near a pub called the Wicked Lady. It’s an intriguing name – the pub itself must be fairly new, as it isn’t listed on Pubs Galore yet – and I might give it a try on my next visit to town.
I rejoined the main road around the centre, and before long I spotted the civic centre. Like the one in Uxbridge, it’s situated in the middle of a busy road interchange, possibly in a modern-day attempt to keep the peasants away from the seat of power. Not far from there, I came to the eighteenth century bridge across the Ogwr. I lined up the camera and managed to get this interesting juxtaposition of the old and new together:
The old bridge and the civic centre.
The old bridge and the civic centre.
At the east end of the bridge, a narrow paved lane leads back into the town centre, opening on to a neat pedestrianised courtyard of fine buildings.

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In the centre of this pedestrian precinct, the town’s war memorial stands with its back to the site of the old Town Hall. It was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for a modern shopping centre, which is now half empty.

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I walked past the Wetherspoon pub in the direction of the station, and found yet more extravagant Victorian buildings topping out some identikit plate glass shop fronts. I need to find more about the history behind Davies’ Buildings:

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I arrived at the station with a few seconds to spare before the train went off down the Vale of Glamorgan line. The best thing about catching that particular train is that it passes through Llantwit Major, and then hugs the coastline past Cardiff-Wales Airport, with fantastic views across the Bristol Channel. It’s not usually a good idea to try and take a photo from a moving train, but on this occasion it worked a treat.

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The Vale of Glamorgan line used to be freight-only, except when passenger services trains were diverted during engineering works, serving the Ford works south of Bridgend, Aberthaw Power Station and Aberthaw Cement Works. It was reopened to passenger trains in 2005, after forty-one years, and I’ve travelled along it a few times since. It makes a pleasant change from taking the main line into Cardiff, even though it takes a bit longer, and it includes important civil engineering landmarks such as Porthkerry Tunnel and Porthkerry Viaduct. On Saturday, I was able to get a clear view of the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm, which seemed close enough to touch through the train window. (Uncle Tony used to be involved with the administration of Flat Holm when he was a councillor in Cardiff, weirdly enough.) Unfortunately, the speed of the train meant that it was impossible to get a decent photo of them. It’s another pencilled-in diversion for when we get a clear day.
Barry has fallen on hard times since it stopped being a major port, but still boasts some fine buildings, which I marvelled at as the train drifted past. For a moment it crossed my mind that I might have to extend the project to become Vanishing Valleys and Vale. Please don’t encourage me by saying that it would be a good idea …
At Barry, the train from Bridgend links up with the Valley Lines, and then runs directly to Aberdare. By a happy coincidence, Cardiff City had played Newcastle United that afternoon, and I hadn’t fancied the idea of trying to change trains when the station was full of soccer fans. As it happened, I was surprised by how quiet the train was when we left Cardiff Queen Street. It would probably have been a very different story if I’d stopped off for a pint.
With nearly five hundred photos of Bridgend to sift through, I’ve only been able to show you my selected highlights here. You’ll have to wait until the website (finally!) goes live to see the rest. However, if you’re ever in the area, I can recommend a visit to Newcastle and St Illtyd’s Church. The town centre isn’t much to shout about in terms of shopping, but there are some little gems to savour if you’re interested in architecture. And, crucially, don’t bother having lunch in the Wyndham Arms (the town’s Wetherspoon pub) – you’ll get a far better deal in Molloy’s, only a couple of minutes’ walk from the covered market. See you there soon …
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