WHERE THE FOLK's the party at?
Updated: Apr 17, 2021
“I IMPLORE YOU TO GO TO CARDIFF, BOYS! Yes, for the degree, but more than that…” a tiny glint appeared in my sixth form history teacher’s eye and his mind wandered off. “Iesu, the times I had at Clwb Ifor Bach! You’ve got to apply, boys, if only to experience Clwb Ifor Bach!”
I vaguely remembered hearing about Clwb Ifor Bach before, but wasn’t quite sure what it meant. In fact, it’s a place known to many Welsh-speakers across Wales, even if they’ve never been there themselves. But so fond were his memories of the place that he deemed it relevant in deciding which university to apply for! I was sold. Now I, too, have very fond memories of student nights at Clwb Ifor, or ‘Welsh Club’ for the English-speaking locals.
The famous nightclub can be found on Womanby Street in central Cardiff, directly opposite the castle’s clock tower. Womanby Street was once the site of one of Cardiff’s lingering slums. Today, it’s bustling with pubs and nightclubs, none of which are particularly ‘mainstream’ (aside from Wetherspoon’s and the back end of Revolution) and mostly cater for those who prefer an ‘alternative’ night out. People like me.
Womanby Street is one of the oldest streets in Cardiff, with its name tracing back to the Norse language, from ‘Houndemammeby’, meaning ‘huntsman/hound keeper’s dwelling’. But there’s no evidence that there were ever Vikings on Womanby Street. ‘Womanby’ has early Teutonic origins and translates to ‘the abode of the foreigners’- referring to the local Welsh, that is.
It became a busy street near the docks occupied by immigrants from all over the British Empire, full of bars, brothels and slums. Jones Court, built by the Marquis of Bute in 1830 to house imported labourers for the expansion of Cardiff docks, is the last remaining example of the fifty-plus housing courts (slums) that once existed in Cardiff.
The street’s reputation for music, ale and entertainment thrived for years, and shows no sign of slowing down any time soon, for despite the COVID-19 pandemic, they still hope to host a variety of street festivals and pop-up markets in the future. The Horse and Groom, one of the earliest pubs in Cardiff, was said to be haunted by a poltergeist and was eventually merged into the surrounding residential quarters. In 2013, it became the site of Fuel, a very popular venue. Could this mean that Cardiff perhaps has a haunted rock bar?!
Aside from being a nightclub, Clwb Ifor has existed as something of a focal point for Welsh-speakers in Cardiff for some time, as well as many non-Welsh speakers, hosting regular ‘members only’ nights (though this practice has recently been discontinued). It was designed to be something of a haven for Welsh-speakers, with most of the staff required to be bilingual and a zero-tolerance policy of anti-Welsh sentiment being implemented. Formerly a British Legion club, Clwb Ifor was founded by Cymdeithas Clwb Cymraeg Gaerdydd, in 1983. The chairman of the group was the Welsh politician Owen John Thomas, of Plaid Cymru. Its existence went by unchallenged for some time, but in 2017, planning permission was granted to build a hotel right opposite the establishment. Fears grew of noise complaints, so a ‘Save Womanby Street’ campaign was launched, and Cardiff Council eventually withdrew the plans.
As mentioned, I have fond memories of Clwb Ifor, but I still enjoy frequenting the place today- the setup is always the same; on ground level, you have modern dance or chart music and the ever-popular smoking area, then on the next floor you can swing your hips to some golden oldies all night (and ‘Bare Necessities’ at some point, no doubt!), and on the upper floor you’ll find all the live bands. Famous names to have played in the venue include The Strokes, The Killers, Super Furry Animals, Funeral for a Friend, Coldplay, Stereophonics, Duffy and many more. From 2014, they also began hosting comedy nights.
Indeed, many Welsh people (and others) are familiar with this Cardiff nightclub, but just how many of them are familiar with the twelfth-century leader of whom the famous nightclub owes its name, I wonder? Furthermore, who knew about the legend of the treasure hidden in Ifor Bach’s tomb, itself lying in a secret tunnel somewhere beneath the city, guarded by two stone eagles within which dwell the spirits of Ifor’s most loyal bodyguards...?
Ifor Bach (Ivor the Short), or rather, Ifor ap Meurig, was Lord of Senghenydd in twelfth-century South Wales. The Normans had already conquered England, as well as most of Wales, but Ifor Bach held land in Senghenydd, being a region of Morgannwg, roughly covering the upland area bounded by Brecknock to the north, the River Taff and Rhymney River running either side and Cefn Onn in the south, all this being just north of Cardiff (there is a primary school named Ysgol Ifor Bach in the Caerphilly area). 'Senghenydd' is also the name given to one of Cardiff University's student halls, namely the one where most Welsh-speakers go to.
The Norman Lord of the area was a William Fitz Robert, 2nd Earl of Gloucester. Gerald of Wales wrote in his Itinerarium Cambriae in 1158 that Ifor Bach was a tenant of this ruthless Norman Lord, who held Cardiff Castle at the time, and Gloucester had his eyes on Ifor’s land.
But Ifor was not a man to cross- by all accounts, he scaled the walls of Cardiff Castle using his bare hands, seized the residing Earl William, his Countess Hawise, daughter of the Earl of Leicester, and their young son Robert. He then took them all to the woods of Senghenydd, where he refused to release them until they gave back the land they had took from him, and then more… and was successful.
It is worth noting at this point that during Ifor Bach’s reign, the castle wasn’t the Disney-esque, fairy-tale castle we know it to be today- it was a Norman keep, mounted atop a man-made hill (which still stands in the centre of the castle grounds today).
In the same year, Ifor killed Morgan ab Owain, Welsh Lord of Gwynllwg and Caerleon, along with 'the best poet in Wales' Gwrgant ap Rhys. So neither a nationalist nor a fan of the arts, it seems… he went on to marry Nest, sister of Rhys ap Gruffudd (a.k.a. The Lord Rhys) and was succeeded by their son Gruffudd sometime before 1170. Incidentally, Gruffudd went on to marry Mabel FitzRobert, daughter of the ‘evil’ Lord Gloucester, and half-sister of the Earl whom his father had kidnapped. Their descendants continued to hold sway in the area and keep the Normans at bay for another century. Notable descendants include Morgan Gam, Llywelyn Bren and Franklin Pierce.
It is said that Ifor Bach built a castle on the site of what is now Castell Coch, and that he reputedly hid his treasures nearby in a secret tunnel which leads to Cardiff Castle. This would be an exciting rumour in itself, however, things took a turn to the bizarre when Ifor Bach passed away: it is said that he was buried somewhere deep within the castle, in a secret chamber, and that he was a superstitious man; worried about being disturbed in the afterlife, he turned two of his men into stone eagles, positioning them near the entrance of his burial chamber so that they may guard him for eternity. Apparently, one time, two thieves discovered the chamber and were promptly chased away by the eagles.
Now, although Ifor Bach was a real person, I suspect that many aspects of his life were greatly exaggerated- from scaling the walls of Cardiff Castle and single-handedly kidnapping the Earl and his family to hidden treasure and the obvious transformation of his bodyguards into living stone statues… nevertheless, much like the Cardiff-based antiques discussed in my previous post, WHERE THE FOLK can I buy Vampire Furniture from?, I find the idea that they may be some hidden tunnels or chambers containing treasure somewhere below Cardiff to be thrilling. As such, after snapping photos of Womanby Street in an eerily quiet Cardiff centre (the shops are shut and the pubs still aren’t serving alcohol), I decided to head up to Castell Coch and explore the surrounding Fforest Fawr myself, imagining scenes reminiscent of Indiana Jones as I went along my way…
Finding Castell Coch is all too easy from Cardiff. Many people see it on a daily basis on their commute to work, glancing up at it as it watches over Cardiff from the forested hill above Tongwynlais, directly above the A470. I made my way northward up Manor Way then onto Coryton Roundabout before taking the exit to the roadside hotel. From there, I bobbed my way over numerous speed bumps before arriving at Tongwynlais.
The village’s name derives from the word 'ton' (plural: tonnau) meaning ley land (i.e. pasture, grassland or unploughed land), and Gwynlais, the name of a local family. It has a population of around two thousand residents. The nearby Fforest Fawr runs some 100 hectacres (250 acres) north-east and is run by the Natural Resources Wales. Although a village in its own right, Tongwynlais is considered to be part of the Cardiff North Rural Area.
There’s a pub, a few shops, a football club and a rugby club, a golf course (which used to be the site of the Castell Coch vineyard, but the wine didn’t really sell that well- be sure to check out the negative newspaper review they have on display at the castle should you ever visit!) and a library. The Taff Trail also passes through the village. There’s a real sense of community in Tongwynlais, I find, and the women at the shop were all too helpful when I stopped to buy myself a little picnic, suggesting numerous places I could park near the castle.
The drive up there can be an irritating one at times, as residents are forced to park on both sides of the road and there is often a steady flow of traffic going up and down the hill. Once at the foot, you take a sharp left turn through a set of metal gates then shift into a lower gear and make the steep climb to the top, praying that you don’t come across a horde of stumbling visitors or a stubborn driver. Parking’s free- just be sure to pull your handbrake up when you do so!
Once there, I think you’ll find that Castell Coch (Red Castle) truly is a wonderful sight- a nineteenth-century Gothic Revival castle, a Victorian Folly, designed to be pleasing to the eye, in fact. With the common green before it, littered with clusters of picnicking families, cyclists and couples, and groups of walkers gathering before a large map of the surrounding woodland nearby, it can sometimes feel as though you’ve arrived at a small theme park! Peering out between the trees, you can see the entirety of Cardiff, along with Garth Hill, which featured in my very first post, WHERE THE FOLK can I find a Hungover Ghost?
Unfortunately, history contradicts Ifor Bach’s story, for it is believed that the first castle to ever stand at the site was actually built by the Normans after 1081, in order to defend the newly-captured town of Cardiff. I looked it up- turns out that the Normans took Cardiff around the same year; it was the sixteenth-century historian Rice Merrick who claimed that it was built by Ifor Bach- a claim most historians have since dismissed as untrue.
The castle was shortly abandoned, with its motte (yes, motte, not 'moat'- motte being the man-made hill or mound used as the base for a castle) being reused by Gilbert de Clare as the basis for a new stone fort (1267-1277) to better control his newly-annexed Welsh territories, which was eventually destroyed in the Welsh rebellion of 1314.
Then, in 1760, the ruins were acquired by Joh Stuart, Third Earl of Bute, as part of a marriage settlement. John Crichton-Stuart, the Third Marquess of Bute, inherited the castle in 1848. One of the world’s richest men at the time, he hired the architect William Burges to reconstruct the castle “as a country residence for occasional occupation in the summer.” Bute had already called for the reconstruction of Cardiff Castle in 1860. Burges rebuilt the exterior of Castell Coch between 1875 and 1879, but died in 1881 after contracting a severe chill following a visit to the castle, with the remaining work being completed by his team in 1891. Bute planted a vineyard just below the castle (reintroducing commercial vineyards to the British Isles), producing wine until the First World War. Then in 1950 his grandson, the Fifth Marquess of Bute, handed the site over to the state, and it is now cared for by Cadw.
Sadly, the castle is shut until further notice what with the pandemic, but in future, you should really pay the price of admittance if you’ve made the effort to get there; the interior design is as, if not more, beautiful than the exterior, and I guarantee that some of the rooms will leave your jaw dangling! It’s essentially a Victorian summer frat house, complete with ceiling murals, a distinct theme for each room, elaborate sculptures and gender-specific bedrooms. And that’s exactly what Castell Coch was at its heyday- a party/summer house for some of the richest Victorians in the world... that was rarely used; a far-cry from the bustling, festering slums of Womanby Street!
Oh, some of you may recognize Castell Coch from the hit CBBC show The Worst Witch, perhaps…?
I vaguely remember a story involving a sick child and her nanny being locked away in quarantine the castle, but more-so, Castell Coch is otherwise known as the dwelling ground of the so-called White Lady: The story goes that a woman died of a broken heart after her son drowned in a nearby pond. It is said that her spirit can often be seen wandering the castle, searching eternally for her lost child. It is even said that Lady Bute, who decided to live in the castle with her daughter following her husband’s death, was driven away by the troublesome ghost. Would anyone care to ask Cadw if they can stay the night to test the validity of this story…?
The surrounding woodland of Fforest Fawr, sometimes referred to as the Taff Gorge Complex, are among the most westerly natural beech woodlands in the British Isles. Indeed, there is a somewhat ancient or medieval aura to the place- it's easy to imagine Ifor Bach and his men hiding between the trees, ambushing unsuspecting Normans! I figured I might as well stretch my legs since I made the trip, although, daydreams of raiding ancient tombs were quickly diminishing…
It’s a pleasant enough walk, with numerous paths you can take in a relatively small strip of land, really. Stick to the main path and you’ll likely see nothing more than dense woodland and clusters of man-made shelters and hideouts, but veer off-course and you’ll quickly stumble upon sudden drops into watery caverns (old iron mines). The Three Bears Cave is fenced-offed for visitors, but it’s worth a look, if only to see the camp bear doing something very dubious with an underage bear…
As you venture deeper, you’ll pass various wooden sculptures portraying local wildlife and characters from the Mabinogion and other Welsh tales; let’s see if you can recognize any of these:
Towards the end of the circular walk, you’ll find The Forest Tea Room (or not, as it is somewhat hidden amongst the trees). Here, under normal circumstances, you can sit inside or out, where they have open fires and even their own peacocks on-site (can you spot them in the picture?).
Alas, I did not find any secret tunnels. It’s easy, when you let your imagination run wild, to find hidden doors in rock formations, or to fantasize that one of the old iron mine shafts leads to some cursed crypt, or to link the mysterious death of Castell Coch’s architect to the ghostly White Lady, but looking at the evidence, the chances of Ifor Bach’s hidden treasure being real are slim-to-none. Much of his story doesn’t add up, least of all the dates in which the events supposedly took place.
Two locations from opposite ends of the social spectrum, both with haunted entertainment venues in the vicinity, both dubiously linked to a mysterious Welsh Lord named Ifor ap Meurig. Ifor Bach, however great or small, left a lasting impression on the residents of Cardiff, both rich and poor, and his name will forever live on… just as long as people stop calling it ‘Welsh Club’, that is!
Thanks for reading.
I’m keen to hear your own experiences of Clwb Ifor Bach… also, what are your thoughts on the extravagant adventures of the mysterious Welsh Lord himself?
And has anyone got any ghost stories relating to Fuel or Castell Coch they’d like to share?
Itinerarium Cambriae, Gerald of Wales, 1158