My obsession with castles is no secret. Whenever good weather combines with a free day or weekend, we are off to explore another castle. We’ve covered all the major castles within a two-hour radius of us and have explored many more on our travels across the United Kingdom. I’m normally big on NOT visiting the same place twice, but castles seem to be my exception. We’ve been to Framlingham Castle countless times and just made our second trip out to Wales to visit Caerphilly Castle again. When a gigantic dragon suddenly appears at our favorite castle, it’s definitely worth a second trip.
Dragons, Geese, and Flatulent Knights
My kids knew we were going to see a dragon. They didn’t expect him to be missing his back side. I’d seen enough photos of the dragon to know what he would look like and my mom imagination wasted no time conjuring up a story. In fact, I might have done a little too well. I explained to my son that morning—who was already decked out with his knight’s vest and sword—that another knight had already defeated the dragon. He managed to chop off his head and left it behind, but the dragon was not giving up that easily and still threatened to bite anyone who got too close. Either I sold the story too well or the dragon was just too life-like because while the other kids ran up to touch the dragon, my son refused to go anywhere near it. I had to explain to him that it was NOT, in fact, a real dragon. Fear gone, he wasn’t so much a dragon-slaying knight but the dragon’s new best friend as he petted its scales and whispered to him.
A school group had entered before us but quickly assembled in a far courtyard for a presentation. We had the dragon all to ourselves. And we took our time getting to know him. Turns out he is a friendly dragon. While he wouldn’t permit the kids to ride on him (it was against the rules), he patiently allowed them to scratch his scales, poke his eyes, stick their fingers in his nostrils, and play in his talons. He also confided in us that the castle would not be needing his protective services much longer since the local geese had proven quite effective. We learned the hard way how territorial the castle geese could be. One brazen goose almost bit my oblivious youngest when he tried to follow the path towards the central courtyard!
But aside from learning to respect the authority of the guard geese scattered across the castle grounds, our visit was perfect. Knowing full well what the nearby gate house (or perhaps out house?) had to offer, we lured our friends visiting for the first time inside. Laughs echoed through the dark room as they stumbled upon a seated, flatulent knight who sputtered loudly each time the kids drew close. Caerphilly Castle pulls out all the stops. It’s little touches like this that make it our favorite castle to explore.
Towers to Climb and Towers that Lean
Most castles we visit have at least one tower to climb. Often it’s carefully mapped out as an entrance tower to climb up followed by another tower to descend after strolling the walls. Not so at Caerphilly. There’s a free tower open to the public right at the castle’s entrance that rewards the climber’s 60-step ascent with a magnificent view of the entire interior of the castle. Then there are the three main towers in the central courtyard wall each with a narrow, spiraling staircase leading through multiple rooms to the open-aired roofs. Another staircase can be accessed from the Main Hall that also leads up along the inner courtyard’s wall. The possibilities for exploration and discovery are endless. And the views are magnificent.
We explored every inch of the castle and climbed any stone ruins encountered along the way. We searched the entire perimeter for more hidden gems and were not disappointed. The largest castle in Wales and second largest in the United Kingdom (Windsor Castle is the largest) is packed with exciting and educational features. From creative cartoon stories detailing the intrigue of the peculiar relationship between Hugh Despenser (second owner of the castle) and King Edward II, his eventual overthrow by his wife Queen Isabella of France, and retreat to Caerphilly Castle to kid-approved displays showing the difficulty of storming a castle like Caerphilly—the kids and I both walked away with interesting new tidbits of knowledge.
Perhaps one of the most interesting features of Caerphilly Castle is its leaning tower. Blamed on damage caused by Cromwell’s troops in the 17th century, the tower is estimated to lean more than 10 degrees. If it weren’t for the fearless giant knight holding it up, it likely would have fallen centuries ago. In fact, he held it up for so long that he eventually turned to stone—at least that’s what I told my kids. Although it turns out this larger-than-life knight is actually constructed of wood. My little knight was happy to help lend his strength to hold the tower in place. And once he was confident it wouldn’t be falling anytime soon resumed climbing nearby.
After pretending to protect the castle all morning, my kids excitedly shifted roles to attacking enemy knights when it was time to check out the life-size, working-condition trebuchet near one of the outermost walls. While they couldn’t actually test out the real thing during our visit, an interactive model allows visitors to see how the trebuchet used a counterweight to hurl stones at the castle. A mangonel catapult, perrier, and ballista are also on display for kids to explore.
Finally, more than four hours after arriving at the castle, my exhausted children agreed it was a good time to leave. They would all nap on the first two-hour portion of our train ride home. It had been an excellent day, or the “best day ever” as one young knight would tell me over and over again that evening while brandishing his new sword. Whether you get the chance to see the dragon of Caerphilly Castle or go when he’s no longer there, it is worth it. And somehow I’m sure this won’t be our last visit to “Red” Gilbert’s castle.
Additional Information for Families
- Hotel options are very limited in Caerphilly so we chose to spend the night in Cardiff.
- Caerphilly Castle is about a 25-minute drive from Cardiff.
- Parking is available right across the street from the castle’s entrance. Make sure to bring change for the parking meter.
- The train station is an easy walk and less than half a mile away from the castle. It’s about a twenty minute (direct) ride from Cardiff.
- There are a couple restaurants (Burger King, Greggs, Costa) right across the street from the castle.
- The castle grounds are quite large. We brought our stroller but parked it multiple times to explore the towers.
- The spiral staircases get very narrow. Wear any children under age two—you’ll want your hands free to hold the rails—and be prepared to help your under 5s. My four-year-old did fine going up the steps but required some assistance getting back down.
- The dragon is on display until July 1, 2016.
And don’t forget to check out the brand new section of our website dedicated to helping families discover the best castles throughout the United Kingdom: UK Castles with Kids!