Visits: 7th/8th March 2015, 7th May 2016
This WHS is quite close to my heart because it was to North Wales that I used to go on holiday as a child when we lived in Manchester. I recollect visiting two of the four castles inscribed here: Conway and Canarvon, as we used to call them. I revisited them last year in order to appreciate them as an adult, and then a year later I went to the two that I hadn’t seen: Harlech and Beaumaris.
The four castles – and more besides – were built in the 13th century by the English King Edward I. Upon coming to the throne in 1272 he boosted his popularity with an anti-corruption drive known as the Hundred Rolls. Edward was an aggressive ruler, and demanded tribute from the Welsh. When they refused he invaded, eventually crushing the Welsh leadership and resolving to impose his will on the troublesome region for the long run. To that end he decided to build these castles, and ever since then they have stood as symbols of English dominance and hence also as focal points for later rebellions under leaders such as the 14th/15th century Owain Glyndŵr.
Conwy Castle and Town Walls
7th March 2015
Conwy, on the north coast of the old Kingdom of Gwynedd, is a walled town with a castle at its centre. In Conwy and Caenarfon only English people lived within the walls of the town, which acted as a centre for the administration of the local area. Mum and I visited Conwy on the way to a family event on a breezy but bright day in March 2015. The castles currently cost £6 each to get into, and you can climb the ramparts and walk all around the medieval site.
Of the four, I think Conwy has been most spoilt by modernity due to the ugly road and rail bridges that jut out across the river right next to the castle- look that that one on the right – I mean what were they thinking?!
Caernarfon Castle and Town Walls
8th March 2015
We met up with family and stayed the night in a Premier Inn in Caernarfon. This is another walled castle town, and to me it felt less spoilt. We drank at a historic pub, the Black Boy Inn, which, being within the city walls of a World Heritage Site, was just my cup of tea. The following morning my brother and I toured the castle in the rain. With its high walls and imposing strategic position at the western end of the Menai Strait it has changed hands several times over the centuries. It was first seized from the English by Madog ap Llywelyn before being retaken, then besieged by Glyndŵr’s forces a hundred years later. The Tudor dynasty marked the start of its decline as a fortress of note, but it was reoccupied by Royalists during the English Civil War and besieged thrice by Parliamentarians – making it the last British castle to be used in war. It was also the site of the curious made-for-TV investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969.
7th May 2016
Fourteen months later I drove up to Shropshire with Natalie to stay with Grandad for the weekend. On the Saturday we drove 200 miles in his car in a circular trip around north Wales. Our first stop was Harlech, where Edward built his castle in a truly commanding location on top of an outcrop overlooking the north end of Cardigan Bay. Harlech was probably my favourite of the four, and has a newly refurbished café and visitor centre to boot.
In contrast to Caernarfon, Harlech castle withstood the siege of ap Llywelyn but fell to Glyndŵr. It became his residence as he continued his uprising before being quelled in 1409. Harlech played a role in the Wars of the Roses as a Lancastrian stronghold for seven years before giving in to a Yorkist siege that inspired the patriotic Welsh song Men of Harlech. From the turrets you get a great view of the sea and coastline – the latter of which is now significantly further from the castle’s walls than it was in Edward’s time.
7th May 2016
That same day we continued from Harlech north toward the island of Anglesey. After a spot of apple pie in the village of Beddgelert and a crossing of the mountains of Snowdonia we arrived in Anglesey via the double-decked Britannia Bridge. Beaumaris castle is located at the other end of the Menai Strait to Harlech, sitting at its northern mouth.
Beaumaris is a schoolboy’s idea of what a castle should look like. Surrounded by a moat, it follows a classic concentric design – consisting of an outer wall and an inner wall. UNESCO calls it one of “the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe”. It is so well-proportioned that it is thought to have been intended to be as much a royal palace for Edward as a defensive fortification. We know he travelled there during its construction to see it for himself, so he must have had high hopes for it.
These days it seems to belong to the seagulls, dozens of which were nesting up in the ramparts when we walked around.
After the castle we returned to the mainland via the Menai Suspension Bridge. I had assumed it was newer than the 1864 Clifton Suspension Bridge near where I live, but it was in fact completed in 1828, making it the oldest major suspension bridge in the world, if I’m not mistaken. We headed back to Shropshire via a stop at St Asaph’s Cathedral and a short re-visit to the fellow World Heritage Site of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which was very nice to see again.