Amazing interiors: Castell Coch

Our series looking at the UK’s most amazing interiors continues with a trip to South Wales and the fairytale-like Castell Coch…

By Dr Marian Trudgill

Nestling among the trees high on a hillside above the Taff Valley in South Wales, with its conical towers peeping out mysteriously from the surrounding forest, 'Castell Coch' – meaning 'red castle' in Welsh – really is the stuff of fairytales.


The three distinctive red sandstone towers of the castle that we see today, complete with drawbridge and moat, are built on the original foundations of a Norman castle. However, these days it's the castle's beautiful, opulent 19th century interiors that really capture the imagination. The interiors of Castle Coch were designed by the architect and artist Willam Burges, who enjoyed the patronage of his John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute and one of the richest men of his time. The Marquess commissioned Burges to restore the castle as a summer retreat for himself and his wife, in a style akin to that of the nearby Cardiff Castle (also designed by Burges), and gave him pretty much free rein – and an open purse – to do it. The Victorians loved all things medieval, and Castle Coch offers one of the finest and most striking examples of the High Victorian Gothic Revival movement, from its intricate wall paintings to its elaborate ceilings and bespoke painted furniture and fittings. Here’s a short tour…

The Banqueting Hall

The Banqueting Hall - © CROWN COPYRIGHT

The gothic Banqueting Hall occupies the first floor of the Hall Block and features high, stencilled ceilings and colourful murals depicting scenes from the life and martyrdom of St Lucius, as designed by one of Burges's craftsmen, Horatio Lonsdale, who took medieval manuscripts as his inspiration. Another notable in the Hall is a tapered chimney based on 15th century French designs, complete with a statue of the same saint, Lucius of Britain – who, according to legend, was King of the Britons in the 2nd century and responsible for introducing Christianity to the British. The stylised furniture, including the armrests of the chairs by the fireplace, with their carved lions' heads, was designed by John Chapple, another member of Burges's team.

Lady Bute's Bedroom

Lady Bute's Bedroom - © CROWN COPYRIGHT

With its imposing, coffered double-domed ceiling and highly decorated arched window embrasures, Lady Bute's magnificient boudoir occupies the top section of the castle keep tower. The circular room is richly decorated in a Moorish style, taking influence from the Arab Room at Cardiff Castle and the chancel at St Mary's Church, in Studley Royal, both of which were also designed by Burges. Lady Bute's large, low bed is a central feature of the room, being painted in scarlet and gold, and topped off with crystal finials at each of the four corners. The fireplace features a carving of Psyche, Greek goddess of the soul, who holds a heart-shaped shield bearing the Bute coat of arms. The exotic colour scheme extends to the intricately decorated cupboard and throne-like chairs. Even Lady Bute's washstand is a remarkable affair, with its two large crenellated towers which cover the hot and cold water cisterns. The wall paintings again take inspiration from the illustrations in 15th century manuscripts, with a range of evocative images including fruiting plants, nesting birds and monkeys – although Lord Bute is said to have considered the monkeys to be a bit too lascivious!

Lord Bute's Bedroom

Lord Bute's Bedroom - © CROWN COPYRIGHT

Despite being a somewhat simpler affair than that of his wife, Lord Bute's bedroom is still lavishly decorated, albeit with plainer geometrical features on the walls (and no monkeys in sight). The elaborate fireplace, painted washstand and dressing table are based on pieces made by Burges for his own home, the Tower House in Kensington, London. The original red and gold 'Narcissus' washstand at the Tower House later came into the ownership of novelist Evelyn Waugh, who featured it in one of his novels.

The Drawing Room

The Drawing Room - © CROWN COPYRIGHT

And now for the real show-stopper – the octagonal Drawing Room. This sumptuous, awe-inspiring room occupies both the first and second floors of the castle keep, together with a minstrel's gallery on the upper level. The ceiling is supported by vaulted stone, featuring eight gilded ribs decorated with butterflies, while painted birds adorn the star-encrusted ceiling. A series of 58 coloured panels offer beautiful paintings of plants, while the characters from Aesop's Fables decorate the walls – including the tale of The Fox and the Crow, a story about the dangers of flattery, in which a sly fox encourages a crow to demonstrate its beautiful voice, thus causing it to let go of a piece of tasty cheese – which the fox, of course, promptly devours.

Aesop's Fables wall murals in The Drawing Room, Castell Coch- © CROWN COPYRIGHT

It’s the rich detail of the decoration that really sets the heart racing. Wall paintings and carvings speak of the fragility of life and the bounty of nature. The focal-point fireplace boasts fabulous carvings featuring the Three Fates, the Greek goddesses said to measure the thread of life, thus determining man's destiny.

The Drawing Room - © CROWN COPYRIGHT

Sadly, William Burges himself never actually lived to see the end result of his plans for the castle, but after his death in 1881 his efforts were continued by his dedicated team, with input from Lord and Lady Bute. Now owned by the Cadw, the Welsh heritage organisation, the interiors at Castell Coch are fantastic in all senses of the word, and are well worth a visit (and there’s also a good Tea Room). Find the details here.

Distant view of the castle from the east - © CROWN COPYRIGHT

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