Roch Castle: is this the finest historic hotel in Wales?
“What was that?” I gasped.
“It’s just the wind,” my mum sighed.
“Since when does the wind sound like a weeping woman?” I snapped.
“Since we’re in the middle of the worst storms these parts have seen all year,” she shrugged before rolling over and going straight back to sleep.
I was at Roch Castle in Haverfordwest, one of Wales most notorious haunted castles – which also now happens to be one of the country’s most stylish boutique hotels.
It was the childhood home of Lucy Walter, mistress of Charles II in the 1640s, ‘a brown, beautiful, bold but insipid creature’ who gave birth to Charles’ son, the Duke of Monmouth; was briefly thrown into the Tower of London after being accused of spying; and then died aged 27 of venereal disease. Some guests claim that they have seen her haunting the castle in a white dress, gliding aimlessly through the winding corridors.
While I didn’t spot Lucy Walter’s ghost, the medieval castle – first built in the 12th century by the Norman knight Adam de Rupe – certainly isn’t lacking in atmosphere. The tower-and-turret pile on shoots up from a stark, rugged outcrop. It is fronted by hefty black gates that bear the castle’s original coat of arms – a crow with a writhing eel hanging from its beak.
Inside is all pointed-arch ceilings, mullioned windows with flapping wooden shutters, and snarling staircases, with handrails made of rope. Pockets of original wall are cleverly illuminated like a museum display. Stuccos and tapestries inspired by Roch’s crow and fish coat of arms adorn the walls.
But one of the most compelling things about Roch is its refreshing mixture of history and modern art. In the lobby are thick-thighed nude sculptures by Ann Goodfellow, their surfaces cracked like egg shells. Huge urns by David Wright, with the scenery of the surrounding St Davids peninsula, painted in black enamel, decorate the alcoves. Grey velvet sofas mixed with black leather coffee tables. The resultant vibe might be arty bachelor’s pad meets Game of Thrones, but in a curious way it kind of works.
The first-floor lounge is particularly delightful, with its hefty coffee table art books, honesty bar and sprawling terrace for taking in the denim-blue views of St. Brides Bay. In the summer you can pull up a chair and do some sunbathing. However, seeing as I turned up on one of the windiest days on record, I have to confess that all I could muster was a few minutes poking my head out between the balcony turrets, before scurrying back inside for a cup of tea with Welsh shortbread.
Bedrooms skillfully mix history and contemporary style. Mullioned windows set into original arched alcoves look out to sea. They have antique wooden shutters that flap ferociously at night if – like me – you neglect to close them properly. Soft greys and minimalist box lanterns make the sleeping quarters feel slick and understated – though circular black leather floor mats may be a bit BDSM parlour for some guests’ tastes. Note that bathrooms are perfectly fine, but they are on the small side, owing to the historic nature of the building, and they don’t particularly wow.
It’s perfectly located for a beach weekend off the beaten track. Newgale, a two-mile beach flanked by a pebble bank that resulted from a huge storm in 1859, is a five-minute drive (or 45-minute walk). It’s hugely popular with surfers, though we were content to walk its full length and back, while dodging the huge washed-up jellyfish and licking 99 Flake ice creams the size of footballs. St Davids, Britain’s smallest city famous for its majestic pink-stoned cathedral, small art galleries and quirky boutiques, is a 20-minute drive away.
Roch doesn’t have a restaurant, though its nearby sister hotel Twr y Felin’s 2 AA rosette restaurant, Blas, serves terrific Welsh lamb, flushed pink in colour and trimmed with squalidly delicious crispy fat. For starters, stick to the local produce, whether it’s juicy summer asparagus that glows as green as the surrounding fields after rainfall, or crab and samphire sourced a couple of miles up the coast. For dessert, I can’t recommend enough the cheeseboard enough – a hand-picked selection of cheddar and caerphilly organic cheeses from Caerfai Farm, made with milk from a herd that spend their days grazing the grassy cliffs of St. Brides Bay.
Roch does serve breakfast, and it is excellent: think toast as thick as paving slabs topped with juicy cockles the size of golf balls, garlanded with seaweed foraged from the beach down the road.
Just as well, after my night spent tugging at the sheets listening to the sound of Lucy Walter’s footsteps. When I woke up the next day, I could still hear their ‘tap tap tap’ “Here, listen,” I whispered to my mother.
She walked around the room gingerly, clearing her throat and inspecting all the cracks and corners like Hercule Poirot. Suddenly she smiled and strode over to the bathroom. “It’s not Charles II’s mistress. Unless she’s supposed to be living in the central heating system.”
Yes, my 17th-century ghost was in fact the ticking of the radiator.
• Read the full review: Roch Castle, Pembrokeshire