Carreg Cennen Castle Caves

by Paul R Davis

Carreg Cennen Castle, a well known tourist site in South Wales, lies at the foot of the Black Mountains about 3 miles south west of the town of Llandeilo in Dyfed.

The Castle has, justifiably, drawn visitors from all over the world due to its spectacular location, perched on the edge of a limestone cliff, almost 300 feet above the valley floor, and it is an impressive site, coupled with the fairy tale air of the ruins that have gained it a place in Welsh tales and legends.

The present ruins of the Castle crown the summit of an outcrop of limestone, formed along a large fault separated from the main band of limestone (which encircles the South Wales coalfield) and lies over half a mile to the south, by the Cennen Valley.

The limestone strata is inclined at about 25° and the southern exposed face of it is dotted with many small caves, the longest of which is only about 150 feet in length. It is this cave which is one of the castle's main attractions.

The cave was incorporated into the Castle's defences probably during the building of the outer ward, in the early 14th Century. The cave entrance is reached from a doorway in the south-eastern corner of the inner ward, which leads down to a vaulted passage, built against the cliff face, which, in turn, leads to the mouth of the cave. The cave entrance was partially walled up, leaving several holes for use as a dovecote.

The narrow passage that leads off, winding northwards into the rock, suggests development by vadose action. The walls are covered in places with a bulbous, convoluted form of calcite, typical of formations in the Carreg Cennen Caves.

This passage soon ends in a small chamber in which there is a small choked pit in the floor, and on the right hand side a natural rock basin fed by water dripping from above.

This 'spring' has been the source of a number of stories - an early visitor wrote "A mountain there is in Carmarthenshire, where Careg Castle sometimes stood, in which there are many spacious holes and wide caves, with a well that ebbs and flows, as the sea on the coast doth, twice in four and twenty hours."

The use of the spring as a water supply has for many years been the supposed reason for the building of the corridor leading to the cave. Today, however, very little water can be collected from the well, and certainly not enough for an entire garrison, besides which, the north ditch of the Castle was specifically designed to catch rain water for drinking purposes. A probable theory is that the cave entrance was sealed up to prevent the establishment of an enemy thus posing a threat to the outer ward and a danger of undermining the walls.

The present remains of the Castle belong to the late 13th Century, and early 14th Century, but the earliest known Castle on the site was raised in 1248, and was probably a ringwork, consisting of an embanked palisade and ditch.

But the occupation of the rock goes further back, 4th Century coins and human bones from the main cave suggest Roman and Palaeolithic settlements.

The shape of the Castle is a rough square, the domestic buildings situated on the east side of the inner ward, the entrance to which is via an elaborately defended barbican on the northern side. The south curtain wall runs along the top most edge of a sheer cliff, and ditches defend the castle on the other three sides.

None of the other caves in the rock are as long as the main Castle Cave, and most are little more than rock shelters. The most westerly site (Marked X on the map) is a short, choked phreatic tube. There is a spring at the base of the hill below it, which may be connected with it.

Nearer the castle, on the southern side at the base of the cliff is a small single chamber, partially blocked by rocks, and slightly to the east of this, on a ledge 12 feet above ground, is a narrow passage, leading about 15 feet into the rock.

The next group of caves (fig 1) are at the top of the cliff, just to the west of the inner ward of the castle. The longest cave, approximately 50 feet long, extends from the southern, through to the northern sides of the outcrop. The cave consists of a low, curving passage, and since daylight can be seen from either end a torch here is hardly necessary. Below the northern entrance of this cave, and a few yards to the east, is a short passage, leading to a small chamber. This 12 foot cave is adorned with mosses and the ubiquitous bulbous calcite. Both entrances to these caves can be seen as one approaches the castle from the north.

Probably the most interesting cave lies beneath the south curtain of the inner ward (fig 2). It is reached by following the western wall of the inner ward around to the southern side. The first cave reached is about 18 feet long with a small entrance leading to a slightly larger chamber. The longest cave, however, is further on, past a difficult traverse over a fissure in the cliff face. This fissure caused some problems originally to the castle builders. Above the cave the curtain has been corbelled over the fissure.

The narrow entrance leads to a squeeze into a small chamber, from which the rest of the cave leads off. It is a difficult crawl over flowstone layers on different levels. There are several small side passages, some of which are probably used by badgers - the angry hissing of one such mammal caused the author to leave the cave with undue haste. The length of the cave is approximately 80 feet.

At the base of the cliff below the last cave, and slightly to the east is a small rock shelter. Beyond this, in a crevice below the walled-up entrance of the main cave is another short animal occupied fissure.

The next group of caves lies further to the south east on a ledge about 30 feet above the ground (fig 3). The most westerly has a low entrance leading to a small chamber from which a narrow twisting passage leads off. Heaps of animal bones suggest badger occupation.

The largest and most impressive of these caves lies further along the ledge. It has a wide entrance chamber, about 12 feet by 16 feet long leading to a low, twisting, phreatic passage, ending at a pool. It is about 35 feet long.

This cave has the appearance of having been a suitable refuge for early man. The cave could be easily defended, and the large entrance allows easy access. It is surprising that this cave has never been excavated, and there is no record of there being any finds from it.

The last and most easterly caves are situated at the extreme end of the rock, and at the base of a cliff. There are two chambers about 10 feet by 12 feet across, connected in the rear by a narrow passage (fig 4). These too, would seem to be suitable for Palaeolithic man.

The castle and the caves, not surprisingly, feature in Welsh folk tales, the commonest of these being that the castle was owned in the ages by Lord Urien of Tskennen, one of King Arthur's knights. An extension of this legend is that it was Urien who was responsible for the construction of the passageway leading to the cave, thus allowing safe access to the spring which was considered an invaluable source of water during a prolonged siege.

Another common Welsh legend associated with caves and rock outcrops is that of a famous hero and his warriors who sleep beneath the rock or in the cave, awaiting the time when Wales will have need of their services. In the case of Carreg Cennen it is Owain Llaw Goch (Owain Red Hand) a legendary figure who is as popular as Arthur in the Welsh tales.

These caves, while by no means as long or a significant as other sites in Dyfed, retain an undisturbed air, and like the romantic and impressive ruin above them, remain an important landmark in both history and heritage.

Text by Paul R Davis.
Reprint from: Book Tony Oldham (2003): The Caves of Carmarthen, With kind permission.
This book is available from Tony Oldham.