Here is the unedited text of a review I wrote for the Museums Journal. It appears in Issue 115/10 (Oct 2015). The printed review actually reads better, but here’s the original: literary warts and all…..
I was born in Cardigan and brought up a few miles away. It has always been a part of my “cynefin” (habitat) and, although it lies 11 miles north of my hometown I still count it in my “fillitir sgwar” (square mile).
My use of a couple of Welsh phrases and words here is an indication of the cultural and historical importance of Cardigan and its Castle as it was here, in 1176, that Lord Rhys (a famously liberal and cultured Prince) held the first Eisteddfod (a festival of Welsh singing, poetry, dance and art). The Eisteddfodau (plural of “Eisteddfod”) are a central pillar of Welsh language expression to this day.
Lord Rhys’ was the first stone-built castle to be raised by a Welsh Prince and, over the centuries, has been attacked and rebuilt several times. The current fortifications are only a few hundred years old and in the central courtyard lies a Georgian country house of decent size.
As a child, my memories of the castle are of an imposing, dark, inaccessible, decaying fortification which was central to the one-way traffic system of the town. A 12th century council roundabout if you will. The last surviving member of the last family to own the Castle lived in the crumbling, damp, kitchen of the Georgian house from the 1940s until 1984 when she moved into a caravan in the grounds. Ultimately Miss Barbara Woods moved into a care home in 1999 and the Castle was bought by Ceredigion Council in 2003. In 2011 the Cadwgan Building Preservation Trust (who now own and run the site on behalf of the community) secured a total of £12 million from HLF, ERDF and Welsh Government to restore the Castle and develop it for tourist and local use.
One enters the restored Castle through the gift shop (the weakest point in any castle’s fortifications, according to comedian Bill Bailey…) which is well stocked with locally-produced materials, although the wooden shields emblazoned with the Cross of St. George seemed a little out of place at a site with such a place in the history of Welsh opposition to Norman Marcher Lords, King Edward, and the English Civil War. The latter dispute resulted in the Castle being dismantled so it could not be used as a defensive structure in future.
On exiting the shop one emerges immediately into the central courtyard, which was a revelation. A huge amount of work has been carried out to conserve, restore and stabilise existing stone fabric of the Castle. Gone are the crumbling crenulations of my childhood. Gone are the rainforest-dense overgrowth of generations of neglect. In their place are crisp stonework and a simple central lawn with newly-planted borders.
One gets a sense of openness and renewal. This is a space I’d like to return to again and again. For this reason Cadwgan offer a special, one-off, season ticket price so that local people can return on multiple occasions and, hopefully, build a relationship with what is a tremendous new local resource. My mother was with me on this visit. She spent her younger days in Cardigan but now, as an 85 year old who is dependent on wheelchairs for mobility, doesn’t get to return too often.
Before exploring further my stomach got the better of me so we adjourned to the cafe. This is a starkly modern construction of slate, glass and polished steel which opens to the central courtyard but also has views over the High Street in Cardigan. One gets a feeling of floating above the town. Its modernity sits very well with the restored stonework of the Castle, after all the walls have themselves been built and re-built several times over the centuries.
The choice of food was a bit limited, but I put that down to the fact that the catering is a new venture and will, like many other aspects of the Trust’s work, develop with time. The service was great and one gets a sense that staff are proud to be working in such an iconic place.
The paths around the central courtyard are well suited to wheelchair use, if a little steep in one or two places, and my mother enjoyed the short journey around the battlements (taking in the WWII pillbox overlooking the bridge over the Teifi river). We then visited the Georgian house.
Again, staff were very welcoming but sadly the building was not. The opening ceremony had taken place only a few weeks before but already the lift was broken and the top floor was also closed due to “health and safety reasons”. Newly-restored buildings do have teething problems but I was not overly impressed with a broken lift which resulted in us being able to see less than a third of the house. Still, we explored the ground floor.
In the kitchen (in which the last owner lived for many years) there was an excellent bilingual video presentation, voiced over by the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys (no relation to Lord Rhys…). The video gave a very clear description (through 3D animation, still photography, music and narration)of the Castle’s history. However, the experience was spoiled by a combination of the echoey acoustic of the room and the voices of visitors in the corridor outside. This made it impossible for my mother, who has a hearing aid, to hear. Indeed I found it hard too.
There were a couple of other rooms to visit which told the story, through panels and displays of objects, of the history of Cardigan and also that of the Eisteddfodau in the town. The overall “feel” of these rooms was good. Airy, uncluttered and containing good cases, interesting objects and clear panels. Sadly a couple of interactives had already ceased to work, there was an interactive map which was horizontally mounted (making it inaccessible for children below a certain height or indeed for any wheelchair user) and some of the label text was tiny and mounted far from the objects and down at skirting board level. In a nutshell there were some classic errors made in design and a lack of durability in the interactives.
On a more positive cultural note, as a Welsh speaker I was pleased to see Welsh and English text always had the same point size and emphasis but the Welsh came first and the English second. This is not a nationalist point, rather it is good that a tourist attraction in Wales sees that the language is a. critically of service to locals and b. gives tourists a signal that they are visiting somewhere “different”.
Built into, and growing out of, the walls of the Castle on the town side are a number of buildings which, as part of the restoration, have been resourced for room hire and for accommodation. Although £12 million has been spent on reclaiming this iconic castle from the clutches of nature there is no secured revenue funding and the whole project needs to income-generate to survive. So, once again, as in the 12th century, Cardigan Castle will become a centre for cultural events for visitors. Despite some teething problems with displays and technology I think Lord Rhys would have been pleased….