The unsung heroes of Welsh heritage

They’re the people who bring the history of a nation to life. The custodians of the hundreds of castles and ancient monuments of Wales are the people to talk to if you want to get the most from your visit. They also know where the toilets are…

Chepstow Castle's gatekeeper

Ryan Evans, Head Custodian of Chepstow Castle by CADW
Construction started on Chepstow Castle in the 11th century, while I’ve been working here since 2011. A small fact like that gives you a sense of perspective straight away about how important these buildings are in mapping the long history of Wales.

Many of the castles of Wales were built to keep the rebellious Welsh in check, but Chepstow was established in order to build a community. Instead of keeping people out, they wanted to encourage them in. Even now that gives the place a different feel from many of the more imposing castles of Wales.

It’s a varied job, and you have to master a few different skills. You need a good knowledge of the place you work and an understanding of what people are most interested in. One of the great things about Chepstow Castle is the fact that all of it is open to the public, so you need to get to know it all pretty quickly.

A living history

The Earl's Chamber at Chepstow Castle, Wye Valley
You can’t help but become involved with the castle’s history. It’s not just about dates; it’s about the people who have lived here over the years. The most famous owner of the castle is William Marshall, who lived from the mid 12th century to the early 13th century.

He started life as a lower nobleman but ended up becoming known as the greatest knight of his day. He served four kings of England, including King John’s son Henry. Because Henry was too young to take the throne William Marshall was made lord protector, which effectively meant he ruled the country. Yet very few people have heard of him.

We get visitors from all over the world, some who have never heard of Chepstow and others who know more than I do about the history of the place. It’s remarkable really that they’ve even got a castle to visit, bearing in mind that it was built right into the cliff-face above the Wye river 900 years ago.

800 years old and still going strong

Chepstow Castle, Wye Valley by Paula J James
It’s only over the last 10 or 15 years since Cadw took over the management of the castle that any strengthening has been done on the cliffs. The most famous feature of the castle are probably its doors, which are 800 years old and were still on the front of the castle until the 1960s.

Even though you develop a real familiarity with the place you still retain that sense of wonder. You’ll see the castle in a different light from time to time, often with the changing of the seasons, or in particular weather. You’ll also see it through the eyes of different people, who might be seeing it for the very first time with a sense of interest, or might ask you a question that you might not have thought of before and make you stop and think in a different way.

There's always somewhere else to explore

Dryslwyn Castle, Carmarthenshire
In terms of my own exploration I am a little biased towards the Wye Valley and the south east part of Wales, toward places like Tintern Abbey, Raglan and Chepstow. They’re three very different sights and they’re all worth seeing, but across Wales as a whole I think some of the most interesting places to explore are the castles of the Welsh Princes.

Dryslwyn Castle and Dinefwr in West Wales and Dolbadarn and Dolwyddelan in North Wales are all in stunning locations. If you stop and think about what these castles have been through over the years, the number of people who’ve walked by them or walked through them, it really is pretty awe-inspiring. It’s a direct link to history that is the envy of the world. 

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