Small castle with a long and varied history, constructed in the 12th century near the Forest of Dean. Some buildings are intact, and used as a youth hostel, while other sections are ruined, and open to the public
St Briavels is an ancient village at the edge of the high ground on the east side of the River Wye, which forms the boundary between England and Wales, and is mostly surrounded by fields but lies close to the extensive, ancient woodland of the Forest of Dean. The forest had been managed as a royal hunting preserve since before the Norman conquest, and to assist the with administration a castle was built in the village at the start of the 12th century; initially a wooden fort protected by a ditch, later a stone structure enclosed by a curtain wall, below which was a water-filled moat.
The castle was modified at various times over the succeeding centuries and while not involved in any significant military campaigns, had a variety of uses including a local government centre, a royal hunting lodge, a forge and metalwork centre, an equipment store and a prison. This latter purpose continued until 1842, after which the place lay vacant for a while before being repaired and modernised, and it was re-opened in 1948 as a youth hostel.
Guests at the hostel are accommodated in the three main surviving sections of St Briavels Castle; the gatehouse, the hall range and the chapel, while the reminder of the site is still ruined, and can be visited by the general public - the curtain walls, the inner bailey, the remains of a great tower, or keep, and the site of the moat. These areas are managed by English Heritage; access to the bailey is only possible from 11 am to 4 pm between April and October, though the exterior can be viewed at any time.
St Briavels Castle has a fine, picturesque setting, partly surrounded by trees, but still within sight of the deep Wye Valley, though the restored buildings, and the necessary modern improvements associated with the youth hostel detract from its authenticity and atmosphere. The castle is not a very popular attraction and there are usually a few parking spaces available at the front, beside the gatehouse and opposite the local church. This location is on the north side of the village, just off the B4228 between Chepstow and Coleford. Because the majority of the site - the interior of the three main buildings - is not open to the public, it does not take long to tour the accessible areas.
The castle at St Briavels was probably established early in the reign of William II, at the start of the 12th century, and the first stone structure was built in the 1160s by Henry II; this initially saw use as a base for royal hunting in the Forest of Dean, and as a centre for a military metalwork (in particular for the production of crossbow bolts, or quarrels), using iron mined from deposits in the forest. More improvements were carried out under King John, including addition of the curtain wall, the keep and a small gatehouse. The gatehouse was replaced by a much larger, twin towered structure at the end of the 13th century, under Edward I, and the place remained an important regional centre for the next 200 years, until royal management ended and ownership passed between several noble families, but gradually became partially ruined. The forge and other superfluous rooms were demolished in 1680. Use as a prison was mostly during the 18th and early 19th century, a process ended by early Victorian reformations.
The dominant feature of the castle is the gatehouse, formed of two D-shaped towers enclosing the entrance passageway, originally protected by three portcullises and a drawbridge. The base of the towers merge with angular spurs, designed to prevent undermining, similar to those at nearby Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire. Each tower is of three stories, and the rooms within originally included the oubliette (dungeon), constable's chamber, porter's lodge, kitchen and prisoner cell. The west gatehouse tower connects to the hall range, which includes the great hall on the upper floor and King John's room beyond, while the other surviving enclosure is the chapel, projecting eastwards from the hall at right angles. The curtain wall extends south and east, enclosing the approximately rectangular bailey, which once contained the great keep, a square structure about 65 feet tall that collapsed in the middle of the 18th century, its presence now only evident from several large blocks of masonry. The foundations of a small square tower can be seen to the southeast, and the walls contain a few other remnants including a ground level fireplace, probably part of the forge. The surrounding moat has been partially filled in and turned into a garden.