Holt Castle and one of the new heritage boards

I did and so should you!

This morning I visited Holt Castle, Wrexham.

This is a distinctive and important castle and it is worth writing about for both its historical significance and its new heritage interpretation.

Holt Castle was built by John de Warrene family after Edward I gave them lands in the Vale of Llangollen and neighbouring territories in Maelor Saesneg previously held by Gruffydd ap Madog who had built Castell Dinas Bran. Construction began c. 1277 and continued to 1311. The adjacent planned town developed with its church (to be discussed elsewhere). The site chosen was on the River Dee, from which it could resupplied in a siege.

The rock-cut cliff defined the inner side of the original pentagonal inner ward

The castle withstood the burning of the town by Owain Glyndwr’s forces in 1400. The castle fell into disrepair in the 16th century but was refortified and saw sustained sieges. It was first garrisoned by Royalists, taken by Parliamentarian forces, then re-taken and then endured a 9-month siege before being handed over by the Royalists to the Parliamentarians in January 1647. Given its effective use, even against 17th-century cannon and musket, it is unsurprising that the castle was deliberately slighted to prevent its future refortification.

The new approach to the castle – stairs allow access into what was the inner ward’s courtyard for the first time

Holt Castle has recently received new archaeological excavations led by Stephen Grenter, Heritage Service Manager for Wrexham County Council as discussed on the BBC website. I was excited to see the work done by Wrexham Council to improve access and provide new heritage displays as well as additional conservation work informed by the discoveries of the excavations.

Another view of the castle from a new bench and allowing contemplation of the relationship between ruins and original construction

This castle’s material remains leave so much to the imagination. The outer bailey has completely gone; covered by modern housing. The inner ward has only modest footings, the result of post-Civil War slighting and stone-robbing. What you see today are the inner walls of the inner ward castle and the impressive rock-cut moat, once fed by the adjacent River Dee. The site has, until recently, received limited heritage interpretation but multiple stages of conservation and some restoration of the stonework.

Inside the inner courtyard, bench and heritage board evoke the pentagonal structure

Since so little has survived; heritage interpretation is especially crucial. The new heritage boards are large and striking, evoking the pentagonal shape of the castle and situated to afford the visitor with reconstructions from the perspective of their location. Moreover, large benches encourage pause for the visitor to look over the boards and ruins in dialogue with each other. There is also an interactive board for the partially sighted (although sadly all are positioned too high for very young children to access and full engage with). These new boards do a very good job of filling in the gaps and allowing the visitor to better understand both what remains and what was once there.

The relationship between castle and borough is very effectively articulated, as is what we don’t know about the outer ward!

Access is now much improved: previously one could only walk around the ditch, but now new metal railings and stairs allow visitors safe access into what was the inner courtyard of the castle. The access is ugly: the bare silver-metal fences and stair cases are a stark contract to the red-coloured sandstone gravel selected in an attempt to blend into the stonework and rock-cut edges of the moat.

The interactive board on the approach to the castle

The relationship between heritage boards and online information also deserves commendation. Holt Castle is also well-served by its Wikipedia page here, which includes a 3D reconstruction allowing a tour of the castle courtesy of the Castle Studies Trust, allowing a richer sense of how the castle might once have appeared. Wrexham County Borough Council’s website is also worth looking at here.

The only surviving steps down to the Water Gate

Holt Castle presents a real challenge to the modern visitor who are forced to use their imaginations. Still, the new access, conservation and interpretation work helps considerably to provide a much fuller sense of how the castle might have originally appeared. Sadly, to my knowledge, the castle still lacks a slick guidebook and detailed up-to-date academic publications. I hope both of these aspects will be remedied shortly.

The new steps are really ugly, but do the trick. At least the gravel is read and tries to emulate the stonework and bedrock.
Moving away from the heritage interpretation, the best display of medieval labour is the rock-cut ditch itself.