In Ruthin I passed the grand gates of a small but well-preserved castle, and found a tavern, the Myddleton Arms, where I stopped for a drink. The barkeeper knew all about the castle, and told me that his own family had owned it, a few hundred years before, though it had originally been built by Reginald de Grey. The most recent owners, the Cornwallis-Wests, had turned it into a hotel.
I was intrigued by the idea of staying in a castle, and decided to spend the night there, particularly when I heard that later I could also attend a mediaeval feast in the style of the Earl of Warwick (around 1590).
My room, which was on the second floor, was reached by a flight of stairs wide enough for four armoured men to walk abreast. A suit of armour and a stone lion guarded the landing. My room, reached through two doors, could easily have held my wagon and still left me to sleep uncrowded. It had stairs from one section to another, and had apparently once been even larger and been split to form two guestrooms.
I bought a guidebook at the front desk, and finding that the castle even had a resident ghost, headed out to explore the grounds before supper.
The grounds were extensive and beautiful. Peacocks roamed and screamed through a rose garden, along gravelled paths, and under high arches covered with ivy. I crossed a bridge to enter another section of the grounds, and climbed up and down several sets of old stone stairs. Parts of the ancient castle dungeon were still accessible, though I needed a flashlight to explore their depths.
Following the guidebook, I found an underground room called the drowning pit. Apparently people were thrown in there as an ultimate punishment. In the days when the castle had a moat, the room was flooded to floor level. A prisoner would be thrown in and the door locked. The prisoner would either drown immediately, or struggle to keep his head above water until eventually his strength ran out. Another room, a huge underground cavern with gravel floor, was known as the whipping pit.
Back out in the fresh air, I found a break in the wall and passed through. On the other side was a small private garden, containing a single grave. This, my guidebook informed me, is the grave of the Grey Lady, the grey-clad ghost who sometimes roams the battlements of Ruthin Castle. She is believed to have been the wife of the second-in-command at the castle in the time of Edward 1st, in the late 1200s. She murdered a local woman, with whom her husband was having an affair, with an axe. She was sentenced to death, and, as she could not be buried in consecrated ground, was buried alone just outside the castle walls. But she has never settled and still walks by night. I wondered if perhaps the woman was innocent and that is why she wanders still.
When I returned to the castle, the guests were gathering in the library, waiting for the great feast. When the meal was ready, we were led to an entry hall where we were offered bread and salt, an age-old symbol of hospitality. Once a guest has eaten the bread and salt, the lord is bound by his honour to protect him and see that no harm befall him.
Then we were led into the banquet hall, once the castle chapel. The Ladies of the Court guided us each to tables, where we sat on long benches, and the court steward came out to greet us. Since the original Earl of Warwick was not available, he chose two of the guests to assume the roles of Baron and Baroness.
The food was served in large wooden bowls, with generous helpings of bread. I had no trouble knowing which cutlery to use, as they gave us each only a knife. There was a thick and delicious soup, roast lamb, and roast chicken. The dessert was something called syllabub, which I found both sweet and sour, and completely delicious. Best of all, the meal was accompanied by mead, which I had never tried before and had been curious about. Though I had been assured several times that mead was an acquired taste, I found that I enjoyed it very much.
During the meal, we were entertained by enchanting singing, both in Welsh and in English, a talented harp-player, and a young clog dancer. The meal took three hours. I felt I was truly living like a lord. In the morning I woke in my sumptuous room to the cries of peacocks.
Here is some more information about Ruthin Castle: