Two interesting yet little known historic buildings stand 300 feet apart in the little village of Tretower, beside a minor river (the Rhiangoll) on the north side of the valley of the much larger River Usk, within Brecon Beacons National Park. The oldest is Tretower Castle, a compact but evocative ruin, consisting of a four story tower-keep within circular walls, plus the remains of an outer enclosure, lined by more walls which link with two smaller corner towers. The castle was constructed in two main phases, the latter in the mid 13th century, but afterwards was in use for less than 100 years, when, in keeping with the decreasing need for fortified buildings and a preference for more luxurious accommodation, its owners constructed a new abode nearby - this is Tretower Court, a rare example of an intact medieval mansion that has not undergone any major subsequent renovations, and so retains most of its original features.
The court is centred on a square courtyard and lined by two storey ranges on all four sides. The two buildings are managed as a single attraction by Cadw, and although just off the A40, a major cross-country route, the site receives few visitors - just two or three per weekday during quieter times of the year, yet there is plenty to see, and the two contrasting buildings are made more atmospheric by their tranquil, rural location, mostly surrounded by fields, within sight of the hills of the Black Mountains to the north.
Castle and court lie just off the A479, which is linked by two narrow roads to the A40 half a mile south; the small visitor parking area is along one of these roads, facing the east side of the mansion. Entry is via a broad, arched doorway that leads through the gatehouse into the central courtyard. The Cadw office, including a tiny gift shop, is on the left, from where the suggested tour is to proceed through a passage in the south range of the court, across a cultivated garden beyond, then walk over the back lawn to the castle, and after seeing this, view the interior of the court on the way back.
The castle is situated just beyond the extensive, walled lawn at the rear of the court, close to a tiny brook. The initial structure here had the traditional motte and bailey design, with a wooden fort on top of an earthen mound, adjoining a fenced enclosure (the bailey), and was erected at the start of the twelfth century, by a Norman lord named Picard. The timber elements were replaced by stone a few decades later; a shell keep, with an approximately circular wall enclosing three rooms - a hall, kitchen and solar (sleeping quarters), with a gatehouse on the east side. The place was expanded around eighty years later, by removal of the hall and construction of a tall, circular tower at the centre of the enclosure, accompanied by roofing of the adjoining area, within the outer defences, and walling of the bailey. The bailey is triangular in shape, with the main section of the castle at the west corner, and other corners to the southeast and northeast, marked by smaller, circular towers. Tretower Castle became fully disused towards the end of the 14th century, some time after the owners had moved to the nearby manor house.
Today, about a third of the bailey is occupied by a farm building, which incorporates part of the northwest wall, and the northeast tower. Another third is used as a yard, leaving the western third, beside the keep, open to visitors; the entrance route is through a gate in the low wall at the south side of the bailey and into the outer section of the fort, where the ruins of the kitchen and solar can be seen. The interior of the tower-keep is accessible via a short flight of stairs, leading to the original first floor doorway, while a staircase on the far side climbs to a second floor window and viewpoint. The keep has long since lost its wooden roof and floors but several windows and ornate fireplaces give some idea of the former appearance, and are indicative of residential rather than military design. About half of the surrounding walls rise approximately to their original height, while the remainder are much lower, just a few feet, and the jagged masonry gives the castle a pleasingly irregular appearance when viewed from a distance, and also makes the place look somewhat different from various angles.
The earliest section of Tretower Court is the north range, which was begun at the start of the 14th century when the castle was still occupied, and was followed after a few decades by the west range, then later by the other two sides of the building. Ownership passed from the Picard family, via William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, to the Vaughan family, who resided here for over 300 years until the property was sold, and it subsequently changed hands several more times, eventually being used for agricultural purposes and becoming partly ruined, prior to restoration in the 1930s. The main rooms are on the west and north sides; the east and south ranges contain mostly passageways, and the upper east side is partly ruined. Two rooms are fully furnished using reproduction artefacts; these are the mess hall, and the great hall, both on the ground floor in the west range. The great hall adjoins a solar room and then the kitchen, which leads to other rooms used for storage, while on the upper level are several large rooms including a second hall, on the north side.