Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country in Europe. One of the best ways to enjoy the castles and the countryside is to combine them in walks. A popular walk is the Three Castles Walk, an 18 mile way-marked circular route that starts at Skenrith Castle, passes through rolling countryside to White Castle, then to the ruins of Grosmont Castle. The castles lie near the border of Wales and England, and, together, they controlled the traffic in the land between the cliffs of the Wye Valley and the Black Mountains, part of the scenic countryside backdrop of this walk. It’s a strenuous walk to do in one day but can be broken into segments.
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William fitz Osbern, steward to William the Conqueror in 1066, built the three castles to secure the area from Welsh attack. Originally they were thought to be earth and timber ringwork castles with keeps standing on their own. In 1201, King John granted the "Three Castles" to Hubert de Burgh. In 1254, the three castles passed to the future Edward I. In 1267 Edmund, Earl of Lancaster and brother of Edward, received title to the three castles. The castles were useful to the English in keeping a handle on the many Welsh rebellions. After Edward I broke the back of the Welsh resistance, Skenfrith, Grosmont, and White Castles were no longer important centres of defense.
Skenfrith Castle sits on the Welsh side of the Monnow River. The remains—a defensive ditch and walls of the keep—of the original castle, on which the 13th stone one was built, were discovered during excavations. What we see now was built by Hurbert de Burgh, who had ambitions to be an important marcher lord.
The castle’s blank curtain wall stands almost as high as it did in the 13th century. The most noticeable feature of the castle is the circular keep, where the living quarters were located, in the middle of the rectangular ward. Remains include signs of a fireplace, windows, corbels, and a garderobe. Only basement levels of other living quarters survive. A water gate once existed at the castle’s east side. Take time to visit the church here to see the tomb of the last governor of the three castles, John Morgan.
Pear-shaped and secluded, 12th century White Castle, originally named Llantilio Castle, stands on a low hill, about a mile from its namesake village, Llantilio Crossenny. This was a moated castle. Part of the white rendering, still visible in spots on the exterior walls, probably gave the castle its current name.
White Castle had three separate earthwork enclosures. The original castle is thought to be the work of Henry II, but remodelling occurred in the latter part of the 13th century. The outer bailey defenses are largely intact. The north side curtain wall connects the six round towers, two of which form a gatehouse. There is a large walled inner ward with towers. The south side was the original entrance, but, when building in stone, a new gatehouse entry was built on the north side where, today, a wooden bridge leads over the waterfilled moat.
Climb one of the twin towers of the inner gatehouse to get a great view of the castle and countryside. White Castle was mainly used for defense rather than as a home. A chapel, hall and kitchen were for the use of the castle commander. While walking in the area, take in the medieval moated site of Hen Gwrt, a manorial site belonging to the bishops of Llandaff in the 13th and 14th centuries. Only the moat remains.
Grosmont Castle, on a steep sided earthen mound is located in the charming small village of Grosmont, itself on a hillside. The name comes from the French gros mont, "big hill". Access to the castle is gained via a wooden bridge—the 14th century drawbridge no longer remains—over the empty moat. A ruined gatehouse and curtain wall partially survive. Henry III came to Grosmont in 1233 to quell a Welsh rebellion, but ended up fleeing the castle after an attack on it. Henry V (before he was crowned king) was more successful. He made use of the castle when stamping out the Glyndwr rebellion in 1405.
The castle contains a two-storey rectangular hall block. Stairs lead up to the top of the wall. This castle, like White Castle, had accommodations for gracious living: fireplaces, garderrobes, a large lobby and windows. A Gothic chimney pot survives from medieval times.
All three castles, used as local administration and taxation centres and for estate management, were kept in repair through the Middle Ages. Then, abandoned, they declined into ruins. They are now managed by Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments. (See June 15, 2000 article). If you can’t manage the walk as a whole or in parts, you can drive to the castles. They make for an interesting day’s excursion into the past.
Off the B4233
6 miles east-northeast of Abergavenny
Open 3rd week April-third week Sept., 10-5pm.
Winter: open site
Welsh Name: Llantilio or Castell Gwyn
11m northeast of Abergavenny
6 miles northwest of Monmouth
Welsh Name: Ynysgynwraidd
10m northwest of Monmouth
9m northeast of Abergavenny
Welsh Name: Y Grysmwnt
¼m east-northeast of Llantilio Crossenny, off B4233
7m E of Abergavenny
Welsh Historic Monuments Cadw