Hay Castle, Powys


East side of the castle
Keep and manor house

Relatively large but poor condition ruins of a Norman castle in the centre of Hay-on-Wye. A major restoration is in progress
On the south side of Hay, between Castle Street and Oxford Street; HR3 5DF
Right at the northern tip of Brecon Beacons National Park in the Welsh Marches, the small town of Hay-on-Wye has in recent times become famous as a centre for second-hand bookshops and as a setting for a literary festival, but is also notable for its picturesque setting, on the south bank of the River Wye, and for containing the ruins of a Norman castle, work on which is thought to have begun towards the end of the 11th century. The oldest visible structures are around a hundred years later - these are a section of curtain wall, a gatehouse, and the remains of a four story, residential keep, this latter adjoining a partially ruined 17th century mansion, construction of which was accompanied by removal of most of the remainder of the curtain wall.

This mansion also borders some more recent structures, so the whole complex displays a variety of architectural styles, in different states of preservation. The oldest, ruined parts are overgrown, fenced off and in generally poor condition, though are easily viewable from adjacent paths, and still quite impressive. This ancient, unrestored and evocative appearance is set to change over the next two years, however, since the current owners of the site, Hay Castle Trust, have commenced a major restoration project that will see all sections reconstructed and re-roofed, incorporating such new amenities as a lift, viewing platform, event centre, archive and exhibition hall. Hence full public access will soon be restored, inevitably accompanied by the loss of the atmospheric nature of the ivy-clad ruins.


The first castle at Hay occupied a different site, a thousand feet southwest - right on the bank of the river, above a shallow valley formed by a small stream, Loggin Brook, and visible today as a low, circular mound. This (timber) castle seems to have been used for only a few decades, being replaced by a larger fortification on higher ground, overlooking both the river and a bigger valley (Dulas Brook) to the east. The first owner is uncertain, but the castle was recorded as occupied by Richard of Gloucester (1st Earl of Hereford) in 1121, and was used as a base during the Norman expansion into south Wales. The stone keep may have been built by this time, or could have been added towards the end of the century, by which time the site had passed by marriage to the de Braose family. It was they who surrounded the castle with a curtain wall and added the gatehouse, or gateway, centred on a set of double doors within a pointed arch. During the next 300 years the place was not significantly expanded though suffered various attacks, sieges, damages and rebuilding phases, the latest partial destruction occurring in 1460 during the Wars of the Roses. It was finally abandoned not long after. The next major development, in the 1660s, was the construction of a three-storey, Jacobean style mansion (Castle House) adjoining the keep, by James Boyle, a landowner from Hereford. Gardens were later planted to the south, accompanied by removal of most of the curtain wall, supposedly in order to improve the views. Other buildings were put up in Victorian times, including a stable block, soon to become a cafe. In the 20th century the mansion has twice been greatly damaged by fire, resulting in ruination of the eastern half, and was for a time used as a bookshop, while the surviving parts of the castle have remained derelict and overgrown ever since the 15th century.

Keep and gateway
Keep and gateway

The Castle

The main parking area in Hay is just south of the castle, off Oxford Road, from where the site is reached by a very short walk, up a driveway (always open to the public), to a sizeable lawn at the rear of the mansion. The mansion consists of three stories, and the southern frontage has eight sets of windows, some topped by gables, partly beneath a double pitched roof and three groups of tall, red brick chimneys. The easternmost half, next to the keep, is roofless and empty. The keep is rectangular, measuring 27 by 32 feet at the base, tapering slightly towards the top. The corners have been partially built at different times, and most of its features - fireplaces, embrasures, windows and buttresses - are later than the core of the walls, which are probably from the late 12th century. On the east side of the keep is the gateway, a short, arched passageway closed by wooden doors, with a room on the top, once containing a portcullis that provided additional protection. The eastern door is medieval, probably 13th century and potentially the oldest such gate in Wales, while the other is a later replacement, contemporary with the mansion. A 30 foot section of curtain wall runs eastwards from the gateway, the only surviving fragment of the 700 foot original. An external stair at the southeast corner of the keep accesses the portcullis room and continues to the walkway that originally ran the full length of the curtain wall. A path curves round the edge of the curtain wall and descends past a patch of trees to a terraced garden on the north side of the castle, in front of the market place in the town centre.