Norman lords, World War II hospitals, POW camps and a Roman fort: The story of Dinefwr

By Ben Miller | 20 June 2014

Tales of 2,000 years: Ken Murphy, the Director of the Dyfed Archaeological Trust, on unearthing a Roman fort

A black and white photo of a castle on a hill
© Emyr Young
“Dinefwr Park and Castle is renowned for its medieval castle and its 18th century picturesque parkland.

However, much more lurks below the surface: the Park is unique, in Britain, in having housed not one, but two Roman forts, two deserted medieval towns, 17th century formal gardens and a World War Two military hospital and prisoner of war camp.

A photo of an artist's impression of a Roman fortress
An artist's impression of the second Roman Fort at Dinefwr© Neil Ludlow
Even the parkland is not all it seems – look a little closer and you will find some of the most ancient and magnificent oak trees in Britain.

As you walk around Dinefwr today, the remains of 2,000 years of history lie beneath your feet.

Some are visible, some require an expert eye to detect and some are invisible, but the lives of people who lived, worked and fought are all around you.

The Park’s Roman forts were only discovered fairly recently, in 2004, when Dyfed Archaeological Trust carried out a survey and small-scale excavation.

The Romans, it transpired, first chose the park as a site for a fort during their conquest of Britain.

A photo of people digging for archaeology in a large outdoor trench
Excavations of the Roman fort© Dyfed Archaeological Trust
Constructed around AD70, the fort housed several thousand troops, but was abandoned after only a few years, when troops were sent north to deal with rebellion.

The Roman soldiers then returned once more around AD 80 and built a new, slightly smaller fort on the site of the old one.

The fort was eventually abandoned in AD 110, once their conquest was complete, the troops withdrawn and the fort razed.

Indeed, they did such a good job of covering their tracks that the forts were not unearthed until 10 years ago.

If we jump forward 1,000 years, there is evidence of another period of bloody conquest at Dinefwr.

During the late 11th century, Norman lords swept into Wales, bent on taking land for themselves. This was not to be a quick war; for over 200 years, South-West Wales was a frontier zone.

A photo of an outdoor festival full of colourful marquees
The literature festival at the south Wales nature reserve takes place this weekend© Emyr Young
It was only in the second half of the 12th century that Welsh ruler Rhys ap Gruffudd - The Lord Rhys - settled and established himself in the area, building the castle of Dinefwr and becoming a patron of the arts.

Lord Rhys is credited with founding the first Eisteddfod, and poets and bards flourished at his main court of Dinefwr. With this prosperity, a small town developed outside the gates of Dinefwr Castle.

The story of Dinefwr changed again during the 13th century, when the English conquest of Wales was completed under Edward I.

English lords set about maximising their profits by founding a new town at Dinefwr, for English settlers, in about the year 1300.

However, both settlements – the old Welsh town and the new English one – were doomed to failure. Eventually, a mansion - Newton House - was erected in the ruins of the new town, with formal gardens covering the ancient grounds.

But it turns out even the gardens at Dinefwr have hidden landscapes beneath them; in the 18th century, they were transformed and landscaped in the fashion of the times, with the formal gardens of earlier times swept away.

Even Dinefwr’s more recent history is almost unrecognisable to those visiting today. During World War Two, the estate was used by the military and a Nissan Hut hospital built in the grounds.

This was later used for two purposes: initially, as a camp for German Prisoners of War; later, as ‘tin town’ housing for the people of nearby Llandeilo, until the late 1950s.

Today, the majestic Dinefwr Park and Castle is managed in partnership between The National Trust, The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales and Cadw. It is the site of the Dinefwr Literature Festival.

For the first time in 2014, the Castle will be open to festivalgoers, who can attend walks and talks to learn more about the site’s ancient history.”

  • Ken Murphy will give a talk, Dinefwr’s Hidden Landscape, at the Dinefwr Literature Festival on Sunday (June 22). His talk will be followed by a walk to Dinefwr Castle in the company of Rhys Mwyn, the punk rock musician, author and antiquarian, who will share the history of the estate and the Princes of Deheubarth.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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