CASTELL NANT-Y-GOF BWLCH

'Gwernogle Castle'

A Preliminary Guide to Bwlch Castle
By Grobius Shortling

ruins
Click here to view the plan of the castle.

Contents
  • Introduction
  • History
  • Description
  • Future Plans
  • Access

Introduction

Castell Nant-y-Gof Bwlch is the sadly ruined castle of a scion of the native princely house of Lord Rhys of the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth, probably Llwydd ap Maenclochog the Elder. This castle is located near the hamlet of Gwernogle in Dyfed, on the edge of the Brechfa Forest in a sparsely inhabited and picturesque part of Wales. It is contemporary with the nearby castles of Dryslwyn and Dinefwr circa 1220-1250 and probably reached its final form in the 1280's until the final conquest by the English in 1287. This region still remains predominantly Welsh-speaking, as opposed to a lot of the rest of Wales.

The castle has been a ruin since 1300 or so, when it was abandoned, though nominally under the ownership of the de Plucknet family. There is a tenuous relationship between the lords of this castle and the Marshmounts (see the Marshmount Castle web page) that was consolidated in 1850 when Margaret de Plucknet married Guichardo Marshmount's uncle Stanley in 1850. Title to the castle came to the Marshmounts as a result of this, although they did little with the property.

In the latter half of the current century, the area has lost a lot of population and cultivated land to the Forestry Department, but upon his taking on the inheritance of the Marshmount estates Seth Pottlebury has turned his eye to this possession among others of the METL Trust. There are plans to at least clear the ruins and open the site to the public. He is also in contact with several universities with a view to supporting a major excavation/consolidation project. There are great difficulties involved, the main one being the inaccessibility of the site, which cannot be reached by car.

We make no claims that this is one of the great castles of Wales -- it isn't, and nothing ever happened there. What it is though is a fine example of a minor native Welsh castle in the boondocks that has not been touched since it fell into gradual ruin starting 700 years ago. Full excavation scientifically conducted would be well worthwhile, and it would be a fairly minor investment to open up a negotiable trail to it so that castle afficianados could enjoy the site. If the trees obscuring the view of it were removed, this castle would be a sight indeed on its prominent location on a crag overlooking a deep valley. This could have been a wizard's retreat, or a Perilous Garde of some Green Knight of legend.

History of the Castle

Castell Nant-y-Gof Bwlch, locally known as Gwernogle Castle (pronounced 'gwernoggly"), and otherwise as just Bwlch Castle ('boolch', ch as in achtung), was constructed in the early 1200's when the Welsh Kingdom of Deheubarth, which is in southwest Wales east of Pembroke and west of the Brecon Beacons, was trying to emulate the English/Norman society that had already vanquished other parts of the country. It was pretty much the last part of the country to remain under native rule, even under the new feudal structure imposed by the Normans. This area is still heavily Welsh-speaking, but sadly depopulated in recent years as people move to the Cardiff region and the ever-encroaching Forestry Department expands into former agricultural areas. (Vast areas of Wales and Scotland are being returned to forests, as in the Stone Age, but this is generally not a good thing, as the plantations consist mostly of conifers, not native trees like oaks and beech -- conifer forests, with their ground layer of fallen pine needles that allow little undergrowth, just as the trees themselves block out most sunlight -- and the native local wildlife ecology cannot thrive in that environment, so this is no 'greening' of the land as those Forestry people would like you to believe.)

There is very little specific history of this castle in the records, as the district it controls, never a very productive one, seems to have been handed out to a very minor scion of Lord Rhys's family, one Llwydd ap Maenclochog. Construction of the castle probably commenced around 1230 and seems to have been well-funded at first (a fortunate marriage?) in that the Keep and most of the curtain wall were very well built according to the architectural standards of Dryslwyn and other castles in the area. The rest of the castle was very shoddily constructed and has poorly survived the ravages of time. (Recent examination of the ruined southern range has shown that the only mortar used was actually clay from a stream bed below the castle.) One point of notice is that this castle was NEVER besieged or attacked -- in fact nothing of historical note ever happened there. Local farmers, if there were any, never removed stones to repair their barns, because this is one of the most inaccessible sites in Wales. The state of ruin is totally attributable to the passage of time and weather. The good state of preservation of the Keep implies that this building remained in use -- for what purpose, we can only guess until it is scientifically examined (probably a sheep cote or a barn, perhaps an outlaw den for Welsh rebels over the centuries, as there are reports that the area was periodically subject to resistance to the English overlords).

We do not know anything about this Llwydd ap Maenclochog except that one of his descendants allied indirectly into the Marshmount family, and that this later Llwydd claimed to be the Prince of Nant-y-Gof Bwlch. Henry Tudor (Henry the Seventh) restored the castle to this family in the course of time, and the heir married the de Plucknet daughter -- that was the Norman family that took over the castle after the fall of Deheubarth.

Description of the Ruins

It is recommended that you follow the conjectural ground plan when reading this. If you can, print it out first.

The castle occupies a crag projecting out from a steep hillside into the valley, with a steep drop on the west, north and east sides. It was entered from the southwest via a bridge crossing the rock-cut ditch that was dug to cut off the promontory and to supply building stone. There are remains of an earthern embankment on the hillside that would have been an outer ward containing stables, storage, and accommodation for the retainers; this has not yet been seriously surveyed, so it is not known what the layout would have been -- although it is assumed everything would have been built of wood and wattle-and-daub.

One now enters the castle by a flight of wooden steps crossing the ditch and into the original gatehouse, of which only the outer archway survives; this was a simple structure with a barred doorway (F), a small guard room (E) between the gate and the watch tower (the arrow loop for which is on your left), and two small rooms on the floor above that would have been accommodation for the castellan. Those were reached by an external stair (G) along the curtain wall that also led to the wall-walk. Only the lower portion of this stairway is still extant.

To the right of the gatehouse are the ruins of the Kitchen and cellarage wing. None of this, apart from a large fragment of the outer wall of the eastern tower, is standing any higher than a few feet. The piles of rubble are overgrown and dangerous, so we do not recommend inspecting this part of the castle. It is known that this area contained a small courtyard, a well (now full of rubble), a large kitchen, and cellars on the ground floor of the southern and eastern curtain-wall ranges, which included a rectangular three-storied tower. There was a set of apartments on the floor above the kitchen, accessible by another external stair (H) along the southern curtain wall. These were likely to have been inhabited by the lord's family and other officials, the servants being housed in the outer ward; hence the description in older guidebooks of this as the Servants' Wing is misleading. North of the kitchen is the Great Hall, the southern portion of which has collapsed.

Turn to your left from the gatehouse. This complex of towers and chambers (A-D) housed the castle garrison. There was also a small prison (L). Although the curtain wall and the outer portion of the watch tower still stand almost to their full height, the buildings, which were probably two-storied, have been reduced to foundations. The area called the Garrison Court has, however, been cleared of rubble, and levelled with dirt fill and grass between the footings of the walls. There are three prominent arrow loops in the western curtain covering the trackway up the hillside from the valley to the outer ward; these are very dramatic when viewed from this road, as is the grim three-storied round watch tower.

Now cross the inner ward to the Great Hall and so-called Yew-Tree Court. On your left under the keep stairway is a fine two-lighted traceried window, which lighted a small chapel or oratory. The Great Hall was entered through a porch now standing to a height of three feet; a platform here provides a viewpoint from which to inspect the interior of the hall. Entry is forbidden, but you can see the large fireplace at the eastern end, a large doorway and window on the left, and the arch at the far end leading to the Presence Chamber, where the lord conducted his business affairs. The southern side once had doors leading to the kitchen and garderobes (I); there was also, probably, a clerestory providing light to the hall, since there are only three windows at ground level.

Written records mention the large yew tree that used to stand in the small courtyard between the hall and the Keep. The small yew tree now present was planted by Seth Pottlebury last year. From this yard, one can view a door and window into the Great Hall, the window of the Presence Chamber, and a small garderobe tower (J). Enter the ground floor of the keep by a small arched doorway; this was original, although normally Welsh D-tower keeps would only be entered on the first floor. This has been called the 'crypt' although it was actually a large cellar. The location of the little chapel at the far end of this dark room is rather odd, but there was probably a full chapel over the Presence Chamber as the lower parts of two large windows are visible in the northern curtain wall. Climb the wide stairway in the forebuilding to reach the main floor of the Keep. Although the floor is now missing and one can only view the interior of the keep from the stairhead, it is apparent that this room was a very fine apartment, the lord's private chamber. When first built, the keep had no story above this and the gabled roof (outline visible on the western end wall) was enclosed by the wall walk that extended up above its highest point. In the early 1270's a new, flatter roof was constructed to accommodate another floor above the lord's room; this would have been the ladies' chambers. Imbedded in the wall between the forebuilding and the lord's room, there is a narrow stair climbing to the battlements, from which there is a fine view over the valley.

Future Plans

As mentioned in the introduction, Seth Pottlebury is trying to coordinate an excavation/consolidation project with the archeological department of a university (we cannot say which one at this stage of the negotiation). Access to the castle is now very problematical, as one can only get to it via Forestry roads and trails; however, the path up from the valley was improved earlier this year (1998) and quite a lot of the rubble in the western portion of the castle cleared away. Emergency repairs are required for the Keep, which is the only intact building. Several large trees have taken root in the walls, causing considerable damage. This will be undertaken in 1999, along with further site clearance.

Feb 1999 update

It has been decided by the Trust to undertake the repairs to the keep, consolidation of the entire west front, and reconstruction of the gatehouse (E-F-G on the plan) as a residence for Seth Pottlebury. A bothy in the outer ward has already been rebuilt as a residence for a permanent caretaker, Hugh Pugh-Pwll, a retired stone mason with antiquarian leanings and an appropriate reclusive nature. Ashlar recovered from the remains of the kitchen court will be used to repair all surface damage to the west side, except for the crenellations, which will be left jagged for esthetic reasons. An interesting gargoyle head, possibly a medieval version of the god Lugh, demonized, was found in the midden and has been installed over the keystone of the gateway. Construction of the gatehouse is almost finished as of this writing, permission having been granted by the Archeological Trust. Completion of this project will show the western aspect of this castle, the most impressive, almost as it might have appeared originally.

[A progress report on the excavation/restoration is now on a separate web page]

Access

Start from Llandeilo or Llandovery on the A40 trunk road (that's the easy part). Take the B4302 N through Talley to Llansawel then turn SW along the B4310 almost to Brechfa. There is an unclassified road N to the village of Gwernogle. Bwlch Castle is about three miles NE of Gwernogle off the Mynydd Llanybyther road, where a small siding on the edge of the forest leads to a track or footpath toward the river Gorlech. Use a large-scale Ordnance Survey map and bring your own food and water! (Avoid what looks like an easy path to the right, when you can see the castle on its hillside, and stay to the stony left-hand trail -- that right turn will lead you into a swampy gully from which you will have to scramble up a 40-degree slope in the woods to reach the castle.) Plan on at least an hour to reach the castle, and wear stout boots. Also, there is no caretaker in the ruins and you are therefore advised not to venture into the roped-off areas. We will not take any responsibility if you injure yourself (Wales is not like the United States where you can sue other people for your own stupid behaviour).


Return to the Marshmount Estates Home Page.

Copyright Grobius Shortling 1998
Last Updated:
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