Nevern is a rural village in the north of Pembrokeshire, in south-west Wales.
Car parking is very limited! If you’re lucky, there will be space near the north way in.
Set your satnav to SA42 0NF to get nearby.
Bus from Fishguard, Newport or Cardigan: route T5 – ask to be let off opposite the B-road to Nevern. Walk northwards about 1km to the castle. Find the south way in and climb the steep path through the wood.
The Trewern Arms in Nevern serves meals. Lunches may also be available in the church hall opposite St Brynach’s Church. Nearest shops are in Newport and the petrol station near Eglwyswrw.
Tour the Castle
From the north way in:
The path into the site takes you along the now-demolished outer north bank, which protected the north side of the castle from attack. Looking south across the outer north ditch you can see the middle north bank, and beyond that is another ditch and bank. These clay banks were originally around 0.5–1m higher than they are today and were topped by a wooden palisade. The ditches were also over 2 metres deeper than they appear today, making this a formidable defensive barrier in the 12th century. This present path was created by the Nevern Community Council circa 1980 when they bought the site. To provide public access to the interior of the castle the outer north ditch, which was originally dry or damp, was dammed. The water is only present due to this modern dam. Continuing along the path, you skirt around the middle north bank which originally extended to the steep cliff face on your left. You now cross over the inner north ditch which is now silted up and through the inner north bank which would also have originally extended to the cliff edge. The present cliff edge was created in the 16th/17th century when slate was quarried here; the original medieval cliff would have been further to the east.
From the south way in:
The path climbs up a steep hill which was an important part of the castle’s defences. The trees would have been cleared to give less cover to attackers.
At the height of the castle’s importance as the seat of the Lords of Cemaes, the top of the bank was lined with stone buildings. Stone was a rare building material at the time, and would have looked impressive to anyone approaching along the valley below.
This path is probably the route of the original medieval access to the town. The presence of smoothed bedrock and the bases of a large number of stakeholes suggest structures associated with a possible entrance to the town in this corner of the bailey in the early 12th century. It was later severely altered through the deeper cutting of the rock cut ditch.
If this was the original entrance to the town, access was only possible on foot or horseback: wheeled vehicles could not ascend the slope. In the early 12th century defence of the settlement was paramount.
At the top of the path, you come up through the cutting between the bailey – the main courtyard of the castle – and the rocky outcrop on which the remains of the Square Tower and Inner Castle are still visible. When it was in use, a bridge crossed the ditch.
Turn left into the bailey.
The large flat area in the centre of the castle is the site of the town of the early 12th century, and the bailey of the mid and late 12th century castle, busy with traders, administrators, and troops preparing for patrols of Cemais.
It has become flat as a result of repeated ploughing of the area in the 18th–20th century, long after the castle had been demolished. Potatoes were grown here as recently as the Second World War.
Walking west across the bailey towards the large earthen mound, the motte, you walk across a slight dip. This is all that remains of a large ditch and bank which originally ran across the centre of this area. In the early 12th century, there was a small triangular castle on the west side of this dip with the motte at the point of the triangle and big banks and deep ditches forming the east, west and south sides.
The area over which you have just walked, the east side of the bailey, was probably originally a defended town which records suggest contained 18 small wooden houses and their subsistence plots.
Around the base of the motte there was a 7m wide, 3m deep ditch. The motte rose up from this in a continuous slope. The present motte is 7.5m high. Originally it was around 1m higher: an unclimbable, steep, clay slope 11.5 m high from the base of the ditch.
The base of the ditch is now waterlogged: conditions which have preserved organic artefacts. Fragments of a leather shoe, discarded in this ditch in the early 12th century, were recovered during the excavation.
Reconstruction: Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler
Climb up onto the west bank and then turn to climb the wooden steps to the motte. We do not know for certain how the top of the motte was reached in the 12th century. A steeply sloping wooden bridge, similar to those illustrated in the Bayeux tapestry, which rose from the bailey surface, seems most likely.
At the top of the motte in the early 12th century there was a large wooden four-post watch tower. There may have been a wooden palisade around the top of the motte; but no evidence of this was found during excavation because in the mid-12th century, approximately 1m was removed from the top, and a large Round Tower, in clay mortared slate, was built.
This Round Tower was two or three storeys high. It had a first-floor entrance, reached by external wooden steps. Inside the tower there is evidence for wooden floors, covered in clay to prevent fires and provide insulation. The tower’s occupants were probably warmed with a brazier in the centre of each floor. The finest pottery on this site was recovered from the ditch surrounding the motte, indicating that the lord and his family would have lived on the upper floor of this building. The lower (basement) level was probably entered by a trapdoor in the first floor. Historic references to similar towers in Welsh castles suggest that high status prisoners were held in this basement, so it is likely that this is where the Lord Rhys was held when a prisoner here in 1194.
On the south west side of the Round Tower, where the current notice board is located, part of a curtain wall was uncovered (no longer visible). This curtain wall probably ran from the Round Tower down the side of the motte and along the top of the west bank to the Southern Tower (no longer extant) which overlooked the entrance to the castle by the late 12th century. Inside the tower you can see that the slate is reddened:, evidence of the fire which that engulfed the structure when the whole castle was slighted in 1195. There are also substantial cracks, and part of the Round Tower wall has slipped slightly down the slope. This damage is associated with the deliberate destruction of the Round Tower after it had been fired.
North bank and rock-cut ditch
After walking around the Round Tower and down the east side of the motte, you can walk along the top of the north bank. Excavation revealed that this bank also had a curtain wall in the late 12th century but, prior to that, at least three phases of wooden palisade were detectable. The presence of these timbers is attested by stains in the soil where the wooden posts had rotted in situ, or where the posts had been removed and the hole or slot filled with soil. There are also fragments of slate that fell into the slot cut for the palisade when it was briefly open.
Beneath the middle north bank under your feet, there are traces of a much smaller bank, with associated evidence of burning, occupation, and pottery. This is evidence for a conquest castle, a fort created to support the original conquest of Cemais in 1108. This small bank was buried beneath the present large bank, which is one of three parallel banks and two ditches. Robert FitzMartin created them circa 1115/6 to protect the town at a time of considerable threat from Welsh military activity in the area. In the 12th century the banks were higher and the ditches deeper than you see them now.
As you descend from the middle north bank, turn right, back into the bailey, and walk along the edge of the Inner Castle rock cut ditch. In the early 12th century this was a shallow ditch in front of a palisade-fronted bank. This provided defence to the east side of the early 12th century town. The castle’s destruction, followed by the later ploughing, has swept away the palisade-fronted bank. Now only a few shallow holes remain where once there were large wooden posts, cut into the bedrock.
At a set of steps, descend, turn left, and follow the ditch down. The rock cut ditch in which you are standing was created in the mid to late 12th century when the Inner Castle was constructed to act as a separate, smaller defensive area, like the inner ward of a more conventional castle.
If you look at the rock face at the north end of the ditch, you can see the short vertical pick marks (90o to the bedding planes of the slate) where the peasant workers of the late 12th century, using just hand tools, quarried this deep defence. The slate from this ditch was almost certainly used for constructing the Inner Castle. This ditch was being dug deeper when building work suddenly stopped, probably after the capture of the castle by the Lord Rhys in 1191. Quarrying was abandoned with only the northern half of this ditch having been excavated to its full depth. A 2m long wooden pole, used to lever out slate blocks, was found abandoned in the base of the workings.
Retrace your steps back up the ditch and turn left climbing up the steps to the Inner Castle.
In the mid-12th century this rocky outcrop had curtain walls of clay-mortared slate constructed around all sides. They were knocked down when the castle was slighted in 1195 and are now only visible as low moss covered mounds around the edge of the Inner Castle. Beyond them are steep cliff faces or the rock cut ditch. This originally created a highly protected space within the much larger castle. There was initially a building, the North Hall, filling the north side of this area with a large courtyard to the south. A wooden bridge gave access over the ditch to the bailey.
Following a period of occupation, the Inner Castle was remodelled in the late 12th century. A large Square Tower with two exterior rounded corners was built against the curtain wall on the west side, facing the bailey. This Square Tower was probably two stories high and had internal wooden floors probably covered in clay. The exterior corners were rounded as this was a stronger form of construction when building with clay-mortared slate. This rounded-corner construction is similar to that used for halls in the 12th century castles of Llantrithyd and Penmaen in south Wales, which were built with low stone walls and wooden upper structures.
The courtyard had a poor broken-rubble surface and only limited debris from human occupation. Like the rock-cut ditch, this area appears to have been a building site late into the castle’s history. A wooden bridge, probably located between the North Hall and the Square Tower, would have spanned the rock-cut ditch providing access between the Inner Castle and the bailey. It is likely that the Square Tower had a first-floor entrance on the south side accessed from the courtyard up an external flight of wooden stairs. The present access is on the north side of the tower through an area of damage and loss from the 1195 slighting of the castle. The present floor level is approximately the level of the original ground floor; there was no basement or cellar.
Reconstruction: Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler
A collection of rounded stones, which may have been used as missiles, was recovered from the courtyard area by the original south side entrance. These may have been thrown down onto attackers trying to enter the Square Tower: possibly evidence of resistance when the Lord Rhys captured the castle in 1191.
The tower was engulfed in fire when the castle was slighted in 1195. It became so hot it burned red into the slate walls. Melted slate was recovered in the centre of the tower, suggesting temperatures of over 1200C were reached. The reddening of the slate can still be seen on the interior surfaces of the tower.
South Side Halls
From the square tower, retrace your steps back down into the rock-cut ditch, and up into the bailey. Once there, keep to your left along its southern edge.
Moving along the south side of the site you pass over ground which contains traces of wooden buildings with clay floors, though few remain due to ploughing.
In the centre of the south side there was a series of stone buildings. Their walls were nearly a metre thick and formed of clay-mortared slate with square-cut gritstone blocks to form the doorways and corners. One corner gritstone block is just visible where the modern low Pembrokeshire bank (vertical slate face) meets the edge of the southern slope. Otherwise, we have reburied the remains to preserve them.
These impressive buildings were deliberately built on the southern edge of the site, to be visible from the valley below and impress those approaching through the village. Substantial stone buildings were very rare. In the mid to late 12th century the only other large stone buildings in north Pembrokeshire were St David’s Cathedral, any associated bishop’s palace, and possibly Cardigan castle.
Their walls formed part of the defensive perimeter of the castle, without any additional curtain wall. They were built over the early 12th century ditch defences of the castle, which had been deliberately filled in.
The most easterly of this group was a small rectangular building (7.5m x 5.1m). It was one of the earliest stone constructions on the site, although its doorway was later rebuilt with gritstone blocks in the Anglo-Norman style characteristic of the later life of the castle.
We found no internal features to indicate the original use of this building. It may have been a solar or great chamber for the lord and his family. It is also possible that it was, or became, a chapel, although it is only poorly aligned east-west. Small chapels for the lord and his family are often seen in Anglo-Norman castles, and a chapel is one of the key buildings in a llys (court). The rest of the castle’s occupants would have gone down to the church in Nevern for services.
To the west of the Chapel lay the long narrow East Hall (21.4m x 5.5m). This was a large open hall; no subdividing walls were detected upon excavation. It probably hosted administrative, craft and domestic activities during the day, and acted as a dormitory at night providing sleeping space for the servants, warriors, and administrators. Since it may well have been a two-storey structure, it may have had a great chamber on the upper level for the lord and his family.
To the west lay the Great Hall. When first built this building was 15m x 6.2m, but it was lengthened to 22.2m when the East Hall was added, creating a substantial hall complex by the mid to late 12th century. The Great Hall had a large central hearth. All the important feasting, administration, and hosting activities of the Lord of Cemais took place in this building. Many servants, officials and soldiers would have slept on the floor overnight, warm around the great central fire.
Later in its history, the Great Hall was refloored with clay. In its southern half, many small wattle and daub walls were constructed, dividing it into a series of small rooms, presumably for individual activities or accommodation.
Outside the Great Hall along its western side there were six narrow vertical-sided pits dug down into the ground. Clay had been extracted to use as mortar for bedding the slates used in constructing the hall.
In all, there is a minimum of six phases of construction in this group of buildings. There is considerable evidence of their use before they were burnt down in the slighting of the castle in 1195. This indicates that the earliest phase of the Great Hall must have been constructed on this site in the mid-12th century when the Lord Rhys controlled Cemais. It may therefore be more appropriate to consider these buildings as his llys rather than as a traditional Anglo-Norman hall.
The Southern Entrance
The entrance to the castle in the early 12th and again in the late 12th century was in this south-western corner. The remains of the stone walls unearthed by the excavation have been buried to preserve them.
The substantial thickness of medieval road surface which had built up at the entrance suggests that the early 12th century road, like the later 12th century one, came up on the line of the present roadway from the village but continued along the edge of the southern slope before turning sharply left to enter the castle. By the late 12th century, it passed beneath the Southern Tower at the southern end of the west bank. Almost nothing remained of this tower, which was totally robbed out after the castle’s destruction. It may have been rectangular or square, but a substantial tower existed here.
The sharp turn of the road just above the steep slope made the entrance very defensible. Attackers were unable to run at it with a battering ram, and when repulsed they would be pushed back down the slope. The gateway probably contained a simple two-leaf door. No evidence for a portcullis slot was found.
The curtain wall in the south west corner was constructed at the same time as the Great Hall extension (mid-12th century). Subsequently it was demolished, probably as the result of a siege, and a wooden palisade erected in the foundations of the demolished wall to maintain defence.
This wall was replaced by the Rhomboidal Tower. Towers of this shape are unusual. A possible parallel is provided by the Welsh castle at Machen (Castell Maredydd). In the case of Nevern, the shape may have been dictated by the edge of the hillside and the existing wall. Later, the outer (southern) wall of this tower toppled down the slope.
A fine new doorway was constructed in the late 12th century. It was of carved gritstone blocks, which created an imposing entrance to the castle, similar to that seen at Bridgend castle. At the same, time the entrance was given a new threshold formed of a series of edge-set slates. These were discovered to have apotropaic symbols, for deflecting evil spirits, scratched on them.
The roadway that enters the castle through the southern entrance ran up towards the motte, immediately inside the west bank.
Turn right and climb up the west bank, which was formed from the soil and slate thrown up in the creation of the deep ditch to its west. This, as all the earthworks on this site, was dug using simple hand tools by local peasants (bondsmen), who owed service to their lord. Walking along the bank, which, by the end of the 12th century, was much higher and capped with a clay-mortared slate curtain wall, you can appreciate how substantial a defence the west ditch is.
Looking down into the west ditch, a ruined 19th century cottage (Pwll-y-broga) can be seen. This is one of three post-medieval cottages on the site. The foundations of an 18th century cottage, dated by pottery, were found in the south end of the rock cut ditch beside the Inner Castle.
In 2018, we discovered the western entrance to the castle. You pass over it as you walk along the west bank and near the motte, although we reburied these remains to preserve them, and they are no longer visible. Constructed in the mid-12th century, soon after the Round Tower and Great Hall (early phase), it comprised a wooden bridge over the west ditch and two clay-mortared stone revetting walls which formed a narrow passageway through the west bank with walls over 4m high. A gate within the passageway controlled access into the castle. Following a siege, during which a blocking wall was built across the passage and the revetting walls damaged, the passageway was filled in, the bridge demolished and the bank reinstated. By the late 12th century, all sign of this entrance had been removed.
As you descend the west bank back into the bailey it is worth remembering that in the 12th century the bailey would have contained a number of buildings. Many had wooden frameworks perched on low slate walls, and floors of clay or compacted slate rubble.
More to see
- There’s a walk from Nevern that includes the castle.
- The Pilgrim’s Cross carved into the rock face on the route taken by pilgrims to St Davids. The path leaves the road half-way down the hill, on the other side from the castle. There’s a circular walk along the river and back to Nevern.
- St Brynach’s Church in the village of Nevern below the castle. It has a recently-refurbished ring of ten bells.
- St Dogmael’s Abbey has a small exhibition centre and café, and a working water-powered flour mill nearby.
- Cilgerran Castle has much of its original structure. Explore the moat and battlements with dramatic views over Afon Teifi.
- Cardigan Castle where the first Eisteddfod was held. There is still a programme of events, and a restaurant.