The Reluctant Travel Writer - Manorbier Castle and a walk through time

Leonard Lea Frazer

Introduction:  For more than 200 years (795 AD – 1000 AD) ruthless Norsemen conducted some 36 raids on the southern Welsh coastline. They pillaged churches, monasteries, and villages leaving a trail of blood as far inland as Chester. Sometimes as many as 200 Viking ships would sail in, attack, and carry off slaves and booty.

The craft of the “surprise attack” was handed down from father to son as the Scandinavian slaughter continued. When Norse raiders eventfully settled in France (Normandy) the lure to raid as their ancestors did continued to devastate Wales. These Vikings, now called Normans, invaded and also settled in South West Wales.  And, that’s where our story begins.  

A Castle with a view:  Soon after the 1093 Norman invasion of Wales, colonization by Norsemen started. Three parcels of land were granted to one of the invaders, Odo de Barrie, and he settled in the area known as Dyfed (Pembrokeshire). When I was camping nearby, over a three day period in 1992, I discovered several names on my travel map that represented past Viking occupation of the area from years ago; names like Havenfordwest, Milford Haven and Solva. During my quest to root out and visit as many Welsh castles as I could I stumbled on the old stomping grounds of Odo de Barrie. Here, I had an enchanted visit at the Manorbier Castle, which was started by the de Barrie family.

The main entrance to the Manorbier Castle below the Gatehouse.
The main entrance to the Manorbier Castle below the Gatehouse.
Photo by L.L. Frazer
Windows in one of the castle’s towers.
Windows in one of the castle’s towers.
Photo by L.L. Frazer

Odo may have built a primitive wooden fortress at the Manorbier site, but it was his son, William de Barrie, that started work on a stone castle (1140) with the help of Flemish craftsmen that had been brought in to help with the colonization process. These workers also incorporated unique Flemish chimneys in the walls of the castle. Besides these massive cylindrical chimneys a “dovecote” was also built in the Great Hall of the former de Barrie’s residence. The dovecote itself was like a round chimney to the outside sky and provided roosting accommodation for over 200 pigeons and supplied winter food for the castle residents.

By 1146 Odo’s grandson Gerald (son of William) was born at the castle. He would go on to be a beloved writer and traveler in Wales and become known as “Gerald of Wales.”

In 1260 an elaborate chapel was added to the castle, which now included a gatehouse, sturdy battlemented curtain walls with powerful corner towers, a barn, two industrial size hearths and all laid out in an almost rectangular shape.

After entering the castle through the main gate I crossed over a wooden drawbridge above the dry castle moat. The gatehouse, above, contained several defensive features: strong battlements, a portcullis, (a gate with jagged spikes that could be lowered), arrow slits and machicolations (openings over the passage way through which liquids or solid missiles could be thrown down on attackers). Although the castle is partially in ruin it is in comparatively good shape due to no major skirmishes or attacks during its history. The de Barries maintained control until 1359 when the last family member died.

The ownership of the castle changed hands several times and eventually became property of the English Monarchy in the late 15th century. In 1630 Queen Elizabeth sold the castle to the Bowen family of Trefloyne. They passed it to the Philippes of Picton Castle in 1670. A farm was supported on the Manorbier estate until the Philippes leased the site to J.R. Cobb in the late 19th century. Today the castle is privately owned by Lady Dusany (a Philippes descendant) and is open to the public.

I enjoyed my walk through the castle grounds and the views of the surrounding area. The description of this timeless attraction of Manorbier is best summed up by that early Travel Writer, Gerald of Wales, when he wrote: “[the castle has] excellently well defended turrets and bulwarks, and is situated on the summit of a hill extending on the western side towards the seaport, having on the northern and southern sides a fine fish-pond under its walls, as conspicuous for its grand appearance, as for the depth of its waters, and a beautiful orchard on the same side, enclosed on one part by a vineyard, and on the other by a wood, remarkable for the projection of its rocks, and the height of its hazel trees. On the right hand of the promontory, between the castle and the church, near the site of a very large lake and mill, a rivulet of never-failing water flows through a valley, rendered sandy by the violence of the winds. Towards the west, the sea, bending its course to Ireland, enters a hollow bay at some distance from the castle; and the southern rocks, extended a little further north, would render it a most excellent harbour for shipping … This country is well supplied with corn, sea-fish, and imported wines; and what is preferable to every other advantage, from its vicinity to Ireland, it is tempered by a salubrious air …”

The castle drawbridge over the moat.
The castle drawbridge over the moat.
Photo by L.L. Frazer
A staircase to the second floor of the Manorbier Castle.
A staircase to the second floor of the Manorbier Castle.
Photo by L.L. Frazer
The Gatehouse with its many defensive features.
The Gatehouse with its many defensive features.
Photo by L.L. Frazer
Manorbier Castle was featured in the BBC television version of CS Lewis’ classic “The Chronicles of Narnia” from 1988 – 1990.
Manorbier Castle was featured in the BBC television version of CS Lewis’ classic “The Chronicles of Narnia” from 1988 – 1990.
Photo by L.L. Frazer