What do two toddlers, a preschooler, and a handful of elementary-aged kids have in common? Turns out: castles. That’s what we learned this past week when four adults set out with eight children to explore two castles in under 48 hours. In the span of two days, we devoted more than eight hours to castle exploration. If it had been up to the kids, we likely wouldn’t have needed a hotel room and would have roughed it like real knights.
It’s not very often we arrive somewhere at lunchtime and 4+ hours later I’m dragging my kids out as the gates close for the night behind us. But that was our experience at Cardiff Castle. We wasted no time once we arrived (by train) in Cardiff at noon. We walked directly to the castle. We grabbed a quick bite from one of the numerous fast food options flanking the castle’s outer wall and picnicked in the grass. Our gaggle of kids only fed each other’s excitement as we ate our lunch in the shadow of the castle’s wall. After just a few bites, their swords were drawn and they were too busy re-enacting battles to finish their lunch. Shoving the last bites of food into my mouth, we gave up on forcing a proper meal and entered the castle gates.
Cardiff Castle has a fascinating history—with ruins of a Roman fort on the site dating back to the 5th century to its more recent modern usage when its fortified outer walls were converted to bomb shelters during WWII. It is believed William the Conqueror ordered a castle built on the site at the beginning of the 11th century. While the original wood castle is long gone, the motte and bailey design is still a prominent part of the castle’s character. The motte and bailey earthworks remained and a more modern style “shell keep” made of stone was constructed in place of the former wood structure. Not a proper stone keep that would later replace the motte and bailey design of medieval castles, but the in-between phase when a stone “shell” wall was used to protect the motte’s interior.
My kids were oblivious to two of the major types of medieval castle design beautifully displayed before us at Cardiff Castle. They obligingly muttered “motte” and “bailey” in response to my numerous attempts to reiterate the correct names for the “valley” they ran through so they could begin their climb to the top of the “big hill”. And they’ve been to enough castles by now to dismissively respond with the name of a castle’s largest central building: the keep. (Although technically, Cardiff Castle does not have a real stone keep, just a shell).
Content that their castle vocabulary was coming along nicely, I allowed my two oldest to rejoin their companions charging up the steep steps. My remaining commentary was left for the unsuspecting parents accompanying me, at a much slower pace, up the steps. But they got lucky. Five months pregnant and wearing a 20-something pound toddler up those steps left me too winded to play tour guide much longer.
The views came next. My favorite part of castle exploration is the views you’re rewarded with after climbing endless spiraling steps. I get to the top and can stop and enjoy the view. My kids share my enthusiasm for the view all of three seconds. Once we’ve climbed the final step and there are no additional rooms to explore, they instantly attempt to go back down and find somewhere new to check out. When I’d had a few minutes to catch my breath, we started our downward descent. Cardiff Castle’s ancient shell keep is a quick endeavor to explore. There are two spiral stair cases to climb and a couple rooms to peer in along the way. Then it’s just an open courtyard surrounded by a wall. Having “conquered” the castle quickly and explored every nook and cranny, they were ready for something new.
Thankfully, the castle complex is sprawling. We attacked the outer wall next. It’s a beautiful walk around the interior of the castle’s perimeter and our posse of children instantly took the lead. They giddily discovered the entrance to the wartime tunnels and wasted no time entering this gateway to the Second World War. When the bomb sirens had sounded decades before, local residents could seek shelter here for days at a time. We strolled past old bunk beds and a replica kitchen from the era as we talked about hiding from the bad Nazis during the war.
Our tour ended in the castle apartments (it’s a “Victorian Gothic revival mansion” to be exact) on the opposite wall. These ornate rooms proved much more challenging for our rambunctious bunch. No touching. No sitting on antique chairs. No running. No squealing. All difficult rules for kids who’ve just had unlimited freedom exploring outside. But they rose to the occasion with an impromptu treasure hunt. They spotted every random butterfly, parrot, frog, naked angel, dog, and weird-looking woodland creature I could find. We may not have learned much history on our tour, but we observed a lot about the palace’s quirky use of animals in its interior design.
We could have ended our day here, but the kids weren’t done. They chased each other around the giant golden statue of Marilyn Monroe (okay, it’s actually a famous Welsh singer, Shirley Bassey) and then found their favorite attraction at the castle: the waist high piling of stones that bisect the center of the castle. Apparently it is all that remains of an ancient stone wall that used to divide the castle into sections. I have never seen eight kids so easily entertained. I’m pretty sure the grown-ups spent hours relaxing in the shade while our kids played contentedly with rocks and frolicked in the grass. Go figure.
Cardiff Castle was a perfect afternoon outing for eight kids of ranging ages. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.