There are few better places in all of Wales to start than the Castle Hotel in Neath. Neath itself has a beautiful long history, (its heart breaking to see what Neath Port Talbot council are doing to it) and the Castle has often been at the heart of it.
The Castle Hotel was known as the Ship and Castle Inn. In 1745 it was the crème de la crème and Neath was thriving. It was the place to be for all gentry. If you had a ball gown, then it needed to be worn in the castle. It was also the go to place for any important meeting whether it be administrative or judicial.
Structurally, the two-story front is the remaining part of the 18th century building. Whilst the three-story adjoining part was added in the 1840s. The corner piece was the former Vale of Neath pub which has since been knocked through.
A Coaching Inn
The Ship and Castle was a coaching inn. These were a vital part of Europe’s inland transport infrastructure until the development of the railway, providing a resting point for people and horses. The inn served the needs of travellers, for food, drink, and rest. The attached stables, staffed by hostlers, cared for the horses, including changing a tired team for a fresh one.
Coaching inns were used by private travellers in their coaches, the public riding stagecoaches between one town and another. The ship and Castle offered post-chaises for hire which are the horse and carts you’d want to ride in. It usually had a closed body on four wheels, sat two to four persons, and was drawn by two or four horses. Crucially, the Castle Hotel was on the Milford Road which made it an important stop for anyone heading West to the important port of Milford Haven.
Admiral Nelson, Lady Hamilton & The Castle Hotel, Neath
It was this exact journey which Admiral Nelson made before the Battle of Trafalgar. It is understood that the Admiral and the very interesting Lady Hamilton visited the hotel on numerous occasions.
These were the absolute A-list of celebrities at the time. Both married but not to each other, Nelson to Frances Herbert Woolward and Lady Hamilton to Sir William Hamilton. Sir William, as you may expect, was far older than Lady Hamilton (Emma) and the affair seemed one which everyone tolerated and the media loved.
What seems slightly odd is that by this time, Nelson’s adventures had prematurely aged him; he had lost an arm and most of his teeth and was afflicted by coughing spells; Lady Hamilton, by all accounts was beautiful beyond belief.
Anyway, it is understood that whilst visiting the Castle Hotel, Admiral Nelson met Lewis Rotely. who was the son of the current innkeeper and he became a Lieutenant of the Royal Marines on HMS Victory.
During the battle of Trafalgar, he took command of the surviving Marines at the end of the battle whilst Nelson was asking Hardy to kiss him. He set aside some of the Admiral Nelson’s personal items which were later donated to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
The WRU (Welsh Rugby Union) & The Castle Hotel, Neath
The Castle Hotels greatest claim to fame though came on 12th March 1881. Eleven rugby clubs met to form the Welsh Rugby Union. This was before Wales even had a capital. Neath and the Castle Hotel were every bit as important as anywhere else.
After a humiliating defeat in Wales’s first ever international rugby game, the Neath meeting was organised to form a union that could organise regular international matches.
The founding clubs of the WFU (Welsh Football Union), as it was originally known, were Swansea C & FC, Pontypool RFC, Newport RFC, Merthyr RFC, Llanelli RFC, Bangor RFC, Brecon RFC, Cardiff RFC, Lampeter RFC, Llandovery RFC and Llandeilo RFC. Strangely the oldest rugby club in Wales, Neath RFC are not recorded as being present, even though the meeting took place in the town.
It is unknown if this was an oversight by the committee to record the presence of the club, or if Neath RFC actually did not attend. The fact that two of the main committee members of the WRU rival SWFU, John Llewellyn and Sam Clark were Neath men, and the creation of the WFU disbanded their union, is generally accepted as the reason for the absence of a Neath representative.
In 1975 Hollywood stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor stayed a night here. Burton grew up in Pontrhydyfen. No doubt, the Castle Hotel still has a lot of future stories yet to be told.