Castles in Wales

As lockdown gradually lifted in the spring of 2021, opportunities for Covid-secure travel began to open. Open being the operative word here.  Whilst visiting indoor attractions was still not possible, visiting outdoor heritage sites provided an antidote to cabin fever.

North Wales has a lot to offer. Its castles have a different history from those built by Norman Marcher lords in the south.  Here, castles were built by the native Princes but captured by Edward I, who then built his own ring of castles.

The Bath Tower in Caernarfon is a wonderful (and very socially-distanced) base for a castle-themed tour. Part of Edward I’s fortified town wall built at the same time as his castle, it is now managed through the Landmark Trust.  Four floors, a well-equipped kitchen, bathroom and functional heating provide comfortable accommodation.  No wifi or TV, but who needs that? Far more relaxing to curl up with a copy of the Mabinogion from the property’s library shelf and enjoy the sunset.

Caernarfon Castle itself had not yet reopened at the time of our visit, but we were able to admire the fortifications from the outside. Pre-booked visits were possible at other examples of Edward’s castles. 

Caernarfon Castle

Beaumaris, was the last of Edward’s castles, built following the rebellion of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294 during which the unfinished castle at Caernarfon had been captured and burned. Master James of St George was appointed as master mason in the spring of 1295 to build a castle on Anglesey, commanding the other end of the Menai Strait. It was a Medieval ‘Grand Design’ – a beautiful concentric layout, but Edward ran out of money as he had turned his attention to fighting the Scots. In February 1296 Master James sent a progress report to the Exchequer stating that the walls were now 20 feet high in the lower part and 28 feet in the highest part and ten outer and 4 inner towers had been begun, but he was finding it hard to retain the workforce as they had not been paid. The castle was never finished. Today it is garrisoned by seagulls nesting at the top of the towers.

Unlike the coastal fortresses at Caernarfon and Beaumaris, Harlech castle has a commanding position on a hill. Looking down from the castle walls there is an encampment of green holiday homes where once a besieging army might have been expected. 

The castles built of Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd also took advantage of the local landscape.  Castel y Bere, which protected his southern frontier sits on a rocky outcrop. An unnerving climb for those without a head for heights, but worth the effort.  The castle Llywelyn built at Criccieth is on a rocky headland overlooking Cardigan Bay.   Dolbadarn Castle commands the Llanberis Pass, protecting the strategic route from Caernarfon to the upper Conwy Valley.  Dolwyddelan was another castle built by Llywelyn to command the mountain passes of Snowdonia. Unfortunately it had not yet re-opened at the time of our visit so we were only able to see it from the road.  It fell to the English in 1283 during the reign of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Edward I  raised the height of the keep and equipped the garrison with white tunics as camouflage for winter warfare in the mountains.

Visiting ruined castles provides plenty of fresh air and exercise, and wonderful views. But there are opportunities for indulgence as well.  Happy Valley café by Beaumaris Castle car park has excellent home-made cake to take away, and the ice cream shop in the square by Harlech castle also sells yummy brownies and chocolate.

We visited in April 2021 as research for a new heritage travel guide.

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