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The Ghostly Castles of Ross on Wye

Ross on Wye is a picturesque riverside town in Herefordshire. As a gateway town to the Marches, the wide border area between England and Wales, you'd expect a castle to stand nearby and you'd be right. There are two, actually built pretty much by the same man, but both with very different legends surrounding them.

Goodrich Castle is a huge red sandstone fortress standing on a solid rock outcrop overlooking the river Wye. Although it is named after Godric, the Saxon lord who built the very first stronghold there, it was rebuilt in stone by various Norman barons before being completely transformed by William de Valence in the late 1200s. Demolishing most of the improvements his predecessors had installed, including those built by “the greatest knight” William Marshall, De Valence constructed a set of gigantic turrets, more outer walls and a grand barbican. He was an ostentatious lord who wanted all around to see the level of his wealth and standing. During the medieval era Goodrich managed to stay untouched by war though, despite it's formidable defensive capabilities, and after the conflicts suffered by Edward II between the Despencers and Isabella and Mortimer the castle went quixckly through many ever more disinterested owners.

The upkeep of such a place would have been phenomenal so it's not surprising that little use was made of Goodrich from the 1400s onwards. The Talbot family were it's constant inhabitants for some time, beating back Owain Glyndwr's Welsh rebels before they reached the castle. So how did it end up ruined? And what's mysterious about it? During the English Civil War a Royalist force led by Sir Henry Lingen occupied the castle and stood firm against a Roundhead army led by John Birch. Despite many attempts to break the siege including setting fire to the stables and blocking the water supply the Cavaliers stood strong. Finally Birch had a set of artillery made, with it's flagship cannon named Roaring Meg gradually bringing down the defences. The Royalists surrendered. Legend tells that a young Cavalier fell in love with a girl who worked in the castle, and in the chaos of the siege they resolved to escape together.

On a moonlit night they climbed down out of the castle and made their way down to the river. The cavalryman had arranged two horses at the banks and the lovers mounted, heading for a ford point nearer to Ross. Tragically the moon became obscured by clouds and the pair lost each other. Veering off course they were both swept off their mounts in the river and drowned, screaming to each other in desperation. Many people have heard their screams along the river at night and seen two figures in period dress picking their way silently up and down the slope to the castle.

William de Valance built another stronghold nearby during his transformation of Goodrich Castle. Penyard Hill is a large forested ridge that broods silently just outside Ross on Wye. The woods open out at the top into acres of open meadows, although it doesn't appear so from the bottom, and at the edge of this area, almost hidden from view inside the forest, lies Penyard Castle. Barely anything stands of the original structure save a corner wall and an undercroft, but during the 1600s a large stone house was built on the site using much of the stone from the ruined castle. The house itself was known as the castle, as described in the 19th century thus - “The only part now honoured by the name of castle is the habitation of a woodward, who lives here in complete seclusion from the haunts of man.” . Some have suggested the original castle was a fancy hunting lodge for De Valence, but that last surviving wall is almost five feet thick!

The strange house is a ruin itself now, roofless and on the verge of collapse, but two fireplaces are still in situ, one of them clearly an old bread oven. It is a very atmospheric place as it stands on a natural terrace looking into the dark forest, with piles of stones from the old castle gathering moss on the slopes. Legend says that there is a huge cavern underneath the ruins which may once have been accessible from the castle undercroft, with a huge treasure trove protected by a giant raven. This dog sized corvid attacks anyone who ventures closer to the cavern's concealed entrance.

Another version of this tale maintains that a local farmer saw a glint of metal in the earth around the castle. Digging down he discovered a large iron double door, stuck fast. Knowing of the legend of the giant raven guarding the treasure, he went away to arm himself, returning with a stick of rowan and piece of bark taken from a churchyard yew tree which he hid in his pocket as a charm. It took hours to even get the doors to budge, finally the man had assembled twenty oxen to pull at the doors and with one last crack of the rowan whip they slowly dragged one side of the iron gates open. He poked his head through the gap and saw a glittering pile of gold and jewels with a huge jackdaw sitting atop it. As he turned to get ready to crawl in, the gates slammed shut again, and a screeching voice rang out -

“Were it not for your rowan whip and your yew tree pin

You and your oxen would all be shut in!”

The farmer ran in terror, only returning the next day to round up the oxen, and declared the castle a place of dread to be avoided. I spent some time poking around the nettles and bushes trying to find this cavern to no avail, but curiously there is a huge yew tree growing right outside the ruins of the house. If the doors ever reveal themselves – I'll be ready.

Goodrich Castle

Goodrich Castle

The ruined house at Penyard Castle

The ruined house

Penyard Castle, or rather the house made of it's stones, the bread ovens are visible to the left

What is left of the original Penyard Castle

Penyard Hill

The house at Penyard castle, with it's great yew to the right

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