Hay Castle

When I heard Hay Castle was opening its doors to the public for the first time in its history last May, it went straight to the top of my ‘must visit’ list.

So while planning my annual new year’s pilgrimmage to Hay-on-Wye to stock up on books, I made sure to add a private tour of the castle to my itinerary.

Hay Castle was built some 900 years ago when a wealthy heiress, Matilda de Braose, was given the castle by her just-as-ridiculously wealthy husband William, then one of the richest men in England.

Matilda took it upon herself to expand the castle and according to legend, built the Norman fortress single-handedly in one day.

Situated at the foot of the Black Mountains in the small market town of Hay-on-Wye, the castle is located close to the Wales-England border, which made it a superb strategic base for controlling the area and keeping the pesky Welsh out of English lands.

Hay Castle

The castle has had a tumultuous history having been ruined, rebuilt and reoccupied repeatedly over the centuries and you can see the different stages of occupation in its architecture.

In the photo above, from right to left, you can see the remains of the old Norman gatehouse, next to it is the ruined Elizabethan incarnation and to the left the recently restored Jacobean mansion.

A wonderfully enthusiastic and knowledgable volunteer named Chris met me for my tour in the castle’s great hall and took me outside where he explained the castle’s lively history.

While historians have been able to piece together much of the castle’s history, there’s still much they don’t know, including what Matilda’s castle once looked like and how far it extended.

They think a lot of the stone from the original castle was used to build the town of Hay-on-Wye, which is why there are so few traces of it left.

Wooden hanging gates at Hay Castle

The castle’s gatehouse boasts two hanging doors (above). The one on the left is a mere 350 years old, but the one on the right dates back to the 1340s, making it the oldest hanging door in the UK.

Because of it’s age and rarity, it’s kept closed at all times to help preserve it.

View over the Black Mountains from Hay Castle

In the 19th century, the castle welcomed a new owner – Lord Glanusk, a wealthy magnate who owned the nearby Glanusk Estate close to Crickhowell on the other side of the Black Mountains.

Lord Glanusk made his mark on the castle by adding a coach house to the left of the Jacobean mansion and the elegant drive that leads up to the castle’s entrance.

In 1845, Lord Glanusk’s cousin William Latham Bevan, a rather eccentric vicar, moved in and he was followed at the turn of the 20th century by the Dowager Lady Glanusk, who’d been banished from the family’s main residence.

After the Dowager Lady’s death, the glamorous Guinness family took up residence. But shortly after they arrived in 1939, a fire broke out, which left half the castle roofless and in ruins.

Hay Castle and war memorial

Its fortunes were revived in the 1960s, when another wealthy eccentric, Richard Booth, bought the castle and moved into the non-ruined half of the Jacobean mansion.

Booth regularly held lavish parties in the castle and he made it his mission to turn Hay-on-Wye from a sleepy market town into the world’s first book town, opening his first bookshop in Hay in 1962.

In the 1970s, Booth declared Hay an independent kingdom, proclaiming himself king of the town and introducing his own flag and currency.

But disaster struck again a few years later, when another fire broke out in 1977, causing the rest of the roof to collapse. By the turn of the millennium, the castle was in a dire state.

In 2011, Booth sold the castle to the newly-formed Hay Castle Trust, who’s since overseen the castle’s restoration and opened it to the public as a cultural centre.

Great Hall at Hay Castle

Having had a thorough overview of the castle’s history and a good look at the castle’s external features, Chris took me inside to continue the tour, starting in the great hall (above).

Here, Chris showed me how the castle would have looked at various stages of its history and pointed out features in the brickwork, which was full of clues about its layout in years gone by.

Hay Castle cellar

From the great hall, we made our way down the stairs to the cellar. The cellar is now a small room, but on the back wall a brilliant short animated film was playing, which told the history of Hay Castle.

Chris also took the opportunity to point out the cellar’s interesting architectural features, such as the bricked up doorway above, and the various tales associated with it.

After looking around the cellar, we made our way back up the staircase and continued up the stairs to the ruined Elizabethan part of the castle.

Elizabethan tower at Hay Castle

The ruin, which is open to the elements, features a small musket ball lodged in one of the walls that’s thought to date back to 13th century when Llywelyn Fawr attacked the castle (above, top left near the black gate).

I was also fascinated by the many doves that were flying around and seemed to be happily living in the alcoves.

First floor corridor at Hay Castle

My tour continued with a look around the first floor (above), which boasts a huge educational space that can be used by local groups.

If you look closely you can see the original charred timbers that survived the castle’s various fires. The non-charred timbers show where the castle’s been renovated.

Papier machier dove at Hay Castle

One of my favourite things were the small touches that are to be found throughout the castle and I particularly liked the papier mâché dove that’s on display on the first floor, complete with very realistic droppings (above).

Richard Booth's study at Hay Castle

We then moved onto the second floor, which has a small exhibition about the castle’s former king, Richard Booth.

Richard Booth's crown, orb and sceptre

The area features various objects once owned by Booth, including his crown, orb and sceptre (above), and recreates some of his most famous creations, including the decision making wheel, which Booth and his guests would spin when they needed to make a decision.

View of Hay-on-Wye from Hay Castle

The tour ended at the top of the castle’s tower, where I enjoyed a wonderful view over Hay and the River Wye (above). It was a fabulous end to an informative tour.

The castle also has a small exhibition space, which at the time of my visit in early January was hosting an exhibition called ‘The Printed Line’.

So after bidding Chris farewell, I decided to take a look around the exhibition and was amazed to discover a superb collection of sketches, lithographs and etchings by the likes of Picasso, Matisse and Whistler.

I hadn’t expected to stumble upon a series of works by legendary artists more at home in the big museums of London, Paris and Madrid in a recently renovated castle in mid-Wales and it was a treat to discover such a well-curated space following the end of my tour.

By now I was feeling a tad peckish, so I finished my visit by popping along to the castle’s excellent café on the ground floor for a cup of tea and a scone.

Hay Castle

I really enjoyed my visit to Hay Castle. As I child (and admittedly as an adult, too) I always looked up longingly at the castle whenever I visited Hay, keen to take a look around the mysterious ruin that was off limits to the public. So I was delighted to finally take a look around.

I hadn’t realised the castle had such a fascinating history and it’s remarkable how much the trust and volunteers have done in such a short space of time to turn the ruined monument into a great community centre.

If you’re every in Hay-on-Wye, it’s definitely worth visiting the castle and I’d recommend joining one of the guided tours to find out more about this lovely historic building.


Hay Castle, Oxford Road, Hay-on-Wye HR3 5DG
Open 10am to 5pm, seven days a week
Guided tour: £5 for adults, £3 for children, free for children under 11

10 thoughts on “Hay Castle

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    1. It’s a great little castle. It’s wonderful that they’ve managed to save this incredible historic monument, restore it and open it up to the public. It’s so much better than letting it go to ruin or have it sitting in private hands. I was so surprised they had the artworks on display, I wasn’t expecting it at all!


  1. Glad to hear that the castle is open to the public (certainly better than being privately owned) and that you fulfilled your wish to visit it. The history is full of twist and turns, the views are lovely. How amazing to see a 14th century door still in its place. Stumbling upon artworks by great masters was an incredible bonus.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so much better when these historic buildings are opened up to the public and can become a focal point for the local community. I hadn’t realised the castle had such an eventful history until my visit, it was fascinating learning all about it during the guided tour. And it certainly was an unexpected bonus stumbling upon so many works by great artists, as well as a historic medieval hanging door. It’s not something you find every day in mid Wales!

      Liked by 1 person

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