Sand Castles

There can’t be many places in the UK where you can look down on a Norman castle from the top of a sand dune. You’ll have to look closely at the main photo above to see the castle among the trees. Candleston Castle may not be a major fortress, but as a fortified manor house is was still at the mercy of natural forces rather than pissed off Welshmen. When it was first built in the 14th century the outlook would have been very different from today as it huddles at the foot of a ridiculously high sand dune. So large in fact it has its own name – Twmpath Mawr. Although the landscape has altered it is thought it would have been built upon a promontory of land overlooking the Merthyr Mawr sand dunes and it is probable that there was originally a small harbour near the site. All that’s left today are the walls of the main house and partially surviving surrounding D shaped defensive walls.

Inside the curtain wall looking towards the main hall area

During the continuing toing and froing of the often violent occupation of Wales by the Normans in the early 12th century Robert Fitzhamon, Baron of Gloucester handed a package of land to one of his followers Herbert de St Quentin. He may have built a small wooden fort here. At some point thereafter the de Cantelupe family were appointed as tenants (the name Candleston is a corruption of their surname). The family were certainly in place before 1320 when the first written record, the Despenser survey of Glamorgan, attests to the presence of Robert de Cantelupe. It was possibly Robert, or his successor John de Cantelupe, who built the stone castle seen today possibly replacing an earlier earth and timber ringwork fortification. By 1468 it changed hands and became the property of Richard Cradock, then to his son Mathew. His career as a lord progressed well when he was appointed constable of Caerphilly and Kenfig castles as well as acting as steward of Gower in 1491. This success allowed Mathew to invest further by rebuilding the all range around 1500. Over the years Candleston played a lesser role as a major residence until it was sold as a farm house in 1808 before finally abandoned in the late nineteenth century and allowed to drift into ruin. Just over a mile to the east are the remains of Ogmore Castle, one of three major castles in the area which also include Coity Castle and Newcastle Castle, Bridgend. The need for so many castles in such a small area showed the Norman desperate need to protect their conquests.

Today the castle is hidden in plain sight next to the car park at Merthyr Mawr, isolated from both the Afon Ogmore and the sea by a huge expanse of sand dunes. Merthyr Mawr is only a small remand of a dune system that once stretched all the way from Ogmore to the east along the coast to Gower in the west. However, years of encroachment by human habitation relating in the building of towns, ports and the huge Port Talbot Steelworks, include in the creation of hard flood defences has destroyed much of this fantastic landscape. But they are still impressive with Twmpath Mawr and other dunes reaching heights of 60 meter or more. I can personally vouch that these are hard work when trying to get to the top.

Historical evidence indicates that the processes of be-sandment were very active in the later medieval period, during the 13th to 15th centuries, with a deterioration of climate and a noticeable increase in be-sanding as the result of storms, higher rainfall and abnormal tides, all occurring in combination. An unfortunate time to build your posh Manor House.

The dune system with the sea in the distance

Now a nature reserve the dune habitats at Merthyr Mawr Warren remain under threat. Ironically from a thorny shrub called sea buckthorn which was planted to help stabilise the dunes. However, they were too successful and are now growing rampantly crowding out other native plants. Another example of unintended consequences. The dunes nearest the beach are the youngest, with their age increasing further inland which haven now been colonised by pines, alder and other pioneer trees. We couldn’t find any flowering plants on our quick tramp towards the beach but it is only early February so I wasn’t expecting much. But we intend to return later in Spring and Summer.

A pine tree inland on a stabilised dune doing a great impression of a giant bonsai

One interesting fact for the film buffs. Some of the scenes for Lawrence of Arabia were filmed here. But no camels were sighted during our trek.

Movement of the dunes continues and there is no evidence of the land that once stood between Candleston and the sea. It now stands an isolated reminder that despite our perceptions of control of the land and buildings there are times that control can be an illusion.

Bibliography

Candleston Castle. Coflein. https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/93050/ Accessed 30 Jan 2022.

Glamorgan Archeological Trust. HLCA 014 Candleston. http://www.ggat.org.uk/cadw/historic_landscape/kenfig/english/merthyr_mawr_014.html Accessed 30 Jan 2022.

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (2000). An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Glamorgan. Aberystwyth.

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