Hay Castle – The Newest Castle in Wales

Wales may be the land of castles – but it’s not very often a new one comes along to explore!

Sitting on the border between England and Wales, Hay Castle recently reopened in May 2022 after an extensive renovation.

After two fires in the 20th Century the castle was in desperate need of restoration. The site was sold in 2011 and the Hay Castle Trust was established with the aim of bringing the building back to life. I feel very lucky to be able to take a look inside now all the works have been completed.

Hay Castle exterior

So, if you’re like me and have already explored most of the castles in Wales, add Hay Castle to your list and get ready to discover its 900 year old story.

Like Welsh history? Love exploring new historical sites? Then don’t forget to check out my Welsh history travel guide.

Hay Castle – History

At its core, Hay Castle is a medieval structure, dating from the Norman period – the original keep is thought to have been built during the late 12th Century. Unfortunately the castle was attacked and burnt at several points in the medieval period, by both Welsh and English attackers, meaning the building was in decline by the 16th century.

However the relative peace that reigned along the border allowed the building of a Tudor mansion. This building expanded, and in around 1636 there was a Jacobean mansion alongside the (now ruined) medieval part. Spot the beautiful Dutch gables that run along the roof – so distinctive!

In the 20th Century, the castle was damaged by two fires – one in 1939, and one in 1977. Part of the castle remained habitable, but the decay inevitably set in.

In 2011 the castle was sold to the Hay Castle Trust, who through a lot of hard work and dedication secured the funding package needed to restore the building.

Hay Castle – People

The interpretation and marketing for the re-opened Hay Castle is built around the many strong characters associated with the castle over the centuries (I also like the way everything has been kept black and white – just like the text of the many books the town is famous for).

You start your self-guided tour in the castle cellar, where an animated film is projected onto the walls, taking you back in time and introducing you to the history of the castle and it’s key players.

Hay Castle was likely built in the late 12th Century by the legendary Matilda and her husband, the Marcher Lord William de Braose. The legend goes that Matilda built the castle herself in only one night using stones carried in her apron. You can learn more about this fascinating woman from history as you tour the castle. I’m so pleased Hay Castle chose to foreground the story of this woman in their interpretation.

Other key figures you will meet along the way include the Welsh prince Llywelyn The Great who sacked the castle during one of his campaigns; the famous diarist Francis Kilvert who visited in the 1870s, and 15 year-old Bramwell Bradley who worked in the castle in the early 20th Century. Luckily for us, Bramwell wrote a memoir detailing his life at the castle.

More recently, Hay Castle was the home of bookseller Richard Booth, who in 1977 declared himself king and Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom. He also pronounced his horse, Goldie, to be prime minister. It was he who made Hay-on-Wye what it is today – The Town of Books.

Richard Booth Stained Glass

Hay Castle – Features

The Hay Castle you enter today is a perfectly balanced mix of old and new. The restoration has been sympathetically carried out. Large new spaces have been created that could potentially lend themselves to a variety of uses, making the castle a very flexible space.

The Great Hall is light and welcoming, and very much the hub of the entire castle. Here you can be introduced to the character’s from the castle’s history, and discover some of the archaeological treasures.

As you make your way up through the castle, you can discover all the new spaces. The first floor is devoted to a learning space and print room, but you can also enter part of the medieval tower. Here you will learn more about the formidable Matilda.

The second floor is home to a gallery ( for rotating exhibitions) and the reading room and archive. Here, you can delve even deeper into the history of Hay Castle if you wish. You can also view the crown jewels of Richard Booth. Naturally, there is a second-hand bookshop too, complete with comfy armchairs.

The crowning glory of Hay Castle is undoubtedly the view from the tower viewing platform on top of the castle. After a short climb you are rewarded with a simply stunning view of the border landscape and the town.

Hay Castle – What Else You Need To Know
  • Hay Castle is FREE to enter, but donations are gratefully received
  • Guided tours run at selected times during the day. I really recommend taking one of these tours. I was shown around by Mari, the learning and activities manager, who pointed out lots of features that I would never have noticed myself.
  • Do check out the great bookshop in the castle. Hay is famously known as ‘The Town of Books’ on account of its numerous bookshops, but the one inside the castle is like someone has seen inside my mind and created my perfect bookshop. Think female-centered historical fiction, Welsh history, local history and more!

Its very rare that you get to explore a new castle in Wales – but that’s exactly what I feel I did with Hay Castle! And seeing the way the historic spaces have been adapted makes me really confident that this new site has a sustainable future, and will be open for many years to come.

So next time you have an itch to visit a Welsh castle, why not visit Hay Castle?

Enjoyed this post? Want to explore even more Welsh castles? Then check out my posts about Chirk Castle and all the castles you can visit in the Bridgend area.

 

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