Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Day Out with The Lords' of The Marches

A visit to three Castles; Grosmont, Skenfrith and White Castle.

Almost a thousand years ago the border between England and Wales was definitely view by the English as the ‘Wild West’. The Celts were unruly and dangerous and the border lands, known as the Marches, had to be defended against the Welsh.  Around 1100 the Normans built a series of small castles to defend the lands that they had won control of in what is now Monmouthshire. 

With snow on the ground but a weak winter sun I decided to visit all three castles by bike but this trip can be more easily made by car. There is a 19 mile cross country footpath which connects all three but that was more than I had time for.  You can see all three thousand year old castles in a morning, travel on some very pretty rural lanes and enjoy coffee or lunch in a couple of fantastic local restaurants.

I started in Abergavenny, which is about 10 miles east of Gliffaes. I headed north to Grosmont Castle first, about 15 miles from Abergavenny.  Grosmont is a small place but amazingly still boasts a Tea Room, a pub and village shop come Post Office in the pretty centre of the village. Opposite the shop you will find the footpath to Grosmont Castle.

Having just read the 14th Centaury tale of chivalry and courtly love, ‘Sir Garwain & The Green Knight’, I could very much picture the feasting and revelry that took place in the Great Hall, the walls of which are still up to roof height.  I could also feel for the poor fellows on guard and how downright cold and miserable it would have been standing on the battlements in the middle of winter as I contemplated the snowy countryside. There is a good deal of the castle intact and the information boards dotted around give you enough of a feel to know how the castle expanded over the centuries before falling into disuse. The castle is maintained by CADW, the Welsh heritage body.

The 5 miles from Grosmont to Skenfrith along the B4347 make for perfect cycling. A mile or so steady climbing, pass the Pant-y-Seal Tea Room and Gardens before a sweeping descent down towards Skenfrith. Here you are welcomed by the happy sight of, ‘The Bell at Skenfrith’ right next to the bridge over the river Monow. I had a truly excellent coffee here but I also know from past experience that you can have a delicious lunch. The wine list is masterpiece, William Hutchings, who helps his wife in the running of The Bell, is passionate about wine and this come through in his award winning wine list.

Skenfrith Castle was clearly sited to overlook the ford on the River Monnow and is in much the same state as Grosmont Castle but larger. Opposite the castle and built at around the same time by the same man; Hubert du Burgh, is St Bridget’s Church.  This is an unusual church in that it has a small wooden bell tower, I didn’t go in but the Church’s website makes it clear that there are interesting things to see inside.

Fortified by my coffee and a banana I set off on the road back to Abergavenny. It was here that my resolve to visit all three castles failed me. Having cycled nearly 30 miles by the time I got to the turning to White Castle I bottled out as I was now keen to get home.  All I can tell you is that it is about 1 mile off the main road!

With the Skirrid Mountain in my sights, the final climb took me past the famous, ‘Walnut Tree’ restaurant. Run by chef and owner, Shaun Hill. Mr Hill has just earned a Michelin Star at the Walnut Tree and having had a wonderful birthday dinner there a couple of weeks ago this would be my lunch stop of choice after visiting all three castles.

35 miles later I was back in Abergavenny, not too much of a strain by bike and if you had driven my route from Gliffaes it would be around 55 miles. This could work out as a very pleasant morning’s drive followed by an excellent lunch before heading back to the hotel.

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