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History column: Penmark Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan

This week we visit Penmark castle, which is within the Barry and district.

We can gleam from this castle a sense of the medieval world and how times have changed; with the additions that are offered to us when visiting the site.

Penmark castle is fairly extensive for a remaining castle in the Vale of Glamorgan; it hasn’t the might of Caerphilly castle – but nevertheless is a place of note.

The castle isn’t the easiest to find; it doesn’t just appear in the village towards the north as you drive through; you have to look.

Firstly, find Penmark Church. Park up at the driveway to the church, or on foot just enter through the church gateway. Heading towards the north boundary of the church, you see the extensive curtain wall, and Norman remains of the castle of Penmark.

When I was child, this was the castle that my grandad, Noah, took me to on our Vale of Glamorgan ramblings. Penmark castle hasn’t changed a lot in the 33 years since. The grass around the castle is still mown, and although brambles crow around the tops of its walls, it remains stable.

The castle is privately owned, so a knock on the door of a property nearby would offer you permission to wander around the site briefly. One or two apple trees remain, of the later Victoria orchard and these are bountiful at this time of year.

Towards the furthest west of the ruins are the remains of a medieval dovecote, only a third of its ground plan is extant. As a naughty 14-year-old teenage – in 1988 – I removed from the ground one of the local limestone dove roosting perches which shows a smooth indentation carved into it.

I’m not the only archaeologist to find something interesting at Penmark castle. In the 1950s local boy Howard Thomas became famous for finding a tin in the ruins with many bank notes. This saw him through university, and he became an archaeologist; later inspiring me to become one. Please don’t search the ruins for anymore tons of wealth, that gold at the end of the rainbow went away years ago.

Penmark castle was constructed by one of the Norman families that settled in the old hundred of Glamorgan; the Umfraville’s. They were well and truly resident in the Barry and district in the 1100s, and controlled sway over land not just in Penmark, but elsewhere in the district and even lordships elsewhere.

The substantial part of the Norman castle is the unusual tower shown in the image.

This internally shows some impressive Norman architecture, in the form of a support arch. Most of the remaining Norman walls in the centre of the ruins stand to at least five metres in height. Added to Penmark castle was the curtain wall described earlier. These date mainly to the 1500s when the days of castles were numbered; at which point it wa owned by the wealthy St. John family – who also owned Fonmon and 10,000s of acres in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Most of the castle walls of varying dates, are over one and a half metres thick. Most of the earlier ditches by the 1500s were filled in around the castle, as at other sites. There are also later buildings erected on the east side of the ruins; last used in the late 1700s.

Towards the east of the castle ruins are some earthworks, that may have been an early Motte and Bailey. Where the local non-Norman population were subjugated to their new Norman master’s rule.

Many thanks for visiting Penmark with us today. More of the Barry and district next week.

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