St Briavels is situated in a gap in the hills above the Wye Valley to deny access to England to enemies crossing the river by the Bigsweir ford.  The CASTLE, built on the site of an older Motte & Bailey castle, was largely constructed in the C12 though the drum towers of the triple gateway date from 1292/3. The East Tower contains an “oubliette”, a dungeon below the level of the moat. The West Tower houses the prison, its walls covered with graffiti cut into the plaster by C17 prisoners. The perimeter walls are largely intact, though the Keep and Great Hall collapsed two hundred years ago.  On the West side, there remains a fine range of mediaeval domestic buildings, including the Solar, known as King John’s Bedroom. Its chimney is surmounted by a hunting horn, symbol of the Forest.

St Briavels Castle was the mediaeval administrative centre for the Royal Forest and the residence of the Royal Constable who was also warden of the Forest. Several kings stayed at the Castle while hunting, including King John. The building also functioned as a court house, particularly for the Mine Law Court, to settle disputes in an important Forest activity. St Briavels was an iron-working village, making crossbow bolts for the Hundred Years War with iron supplied by a Great Forge in the Castle. The Castle was a court, a prison and an industrial site as well as a royal residence

Opposite the Castle lies the CHURCH of St Mary the Virgin. It was originally a simple cross-shaped Norman building, with a tower over the crossing. Now, the pillars on the South side are Norman, but the North side was rebuilt in the early mediaeval period, probably due to subsidence. The original Tower was taken down and that seen today over the South Porch was built about 1830. It shows a rare single handed clock, recently restored to working order, and a full peal of bells.

Inside the Church is a unique Norman font and monuments to the Whittington family. The Church porch contains a list of bequests to the Parish, and for one of these, the Whittington Purse, a sermon is still preached each year on Whit Sunday; it is worth 1£6s8d. The Churchyard contains interesting monuments and the foot path which runs through it, continuing the lane between the Castle moat and the George car park is the ancient road to Monmouth. The pound wall is used for the annual “Bread and Cheese” ceremony, held on Whit Sunday, and dating from at least the C14. Cubes of bread and cheese are scattered for people to gather; these were especially popular with Forest miners who believed they brought safety underground. The ceremony gives the right to the parishioners of St Briavels to collect firewood in the Hudnalls.

Walking up the road from the church, the large Victorian House, once the vicarage, is on the left and beyond it a group of mainly Georgian houses curving round the corner to end at Patchwell House, a solid C18 farmhouse. Opposite the ALMS HOUSES still house four parishioners as provided for by the generosity of Charles Lord Denton and his heir, Charles Townshend. The Assembly Rooms and Townshend Cottages were built by the same benefactors.

A short stroll towards the crossroads, with more elegant Georgian houses, the Playing Fields are another example of the generosity from which St Briavels has benefited; this large site was bequeathed to the Parish Council to be used for leisure and sporting activities by the villagers. Turning back towards the village centre, after the Assembly Rooms there is a short row of cottages, once part of the Denton Estate and ending with ST MARY’S CHANTRY.

Dating from the C15,it was built to house  priests who were paid to say Masses for the  souls of a particular  family. The small  cottage next door has mediaeval masonry inside, showing that the building was once much larger.

Directly across the Square is the GEORGE, which, with its exposed beams and stone fireplaces, dates from the C17. There is a late Saxon or early Norman cross in the wall of the bar, and the cellars may be older – there are rumours of secret passages linking them to the Church and the Castle.

Continuing round the road past two Georgian villas, one of which contains mediaeval remains, Pystol Lane is on the left. It winds uphill lined with pleasant cottages and St Briavels House, built by Charles Lord Denton, on the left, up to the Crown. Opposite the Crown is the Barrelwell, now capped, with a stone for a bucket rest beside it. This gave rise to the rhyme

                “Barrelwell water and Worralls wheat

                Makes bread fit for a king to eat”

The water fills the horse trough outside the Crown and then flows through a series of culverts under houses and roads into the castle moat.  The lane next to the Barrellwell leads past another disused Well towards the Victorian school. A right turn into the High Street shows another range of Georgian houses, the largest being Ashfield House, once The Plough. Walking down the hill, past the Lodge, the Castle comes into view. Keeping it on the right hand you reach the BAILEY TUMP a large level piece of land which may once have been part of the Castle. The village maypole was placed here, for May Day celebrations, but no trace of it now remains. The hill below The Tump is known as Cinderhill, and is supposed to have been formed by the cinders left by iron-working. The path down beside the Tump is Three Post Lane and at the bottom is ST BRIDES WELL, one of several mediaeval wells in the parish. It is said that if a bride washed her face in the water on her way to her wedding, she would always be beautiful.

Retrace your steps up Three Post Lane and take a moment to sit on the Tump and admire the wonderful view it affords across the river towards Wales.