We rented a car and drove to north Wales. It was a glorious green week, almost entirely sidestepped by gloomy weather. Rain clouds only made an appearance once or twice just to give our raincoats an opportunity to be useful and to show us some other shades of this beautiful, sheep-studded landscape. We were looking after a little old dog that needed twice-daily walks and I was unwell for a while, so we couldn’t pack every day full of activities from dawn to dusk, but even with our loose planning and slow starts, we still managed to see plenty of amazing things. Like castles.
During the course of the week, we visited four 13th-century castles, and by ‘visited’ I mean that we explored them thoroughly for hours upon hours, climbing every helix of dark and dodgy stairs, inspecting every nook and cranny and taking advantage of every turret or tower to drink in the views over the weather-worn battlements. You can find the detailed histories for yourself. Here are a few impressions and pictures.
Thought to be built by Llywelyn the Great in the 13th century (with additions and repairs made in the centuries that followed), this Welsh castle was the first one we visited and also the smallest. It stands atop a rugged hill and appears both broken and unbreakable; a weathered victim of the passing of time, but also a stubbornly unmovable block of human fortitude. The wind howled through the gaps and clanked the wooden door and I stared at the giant, inert fireplace in the main room and tried to imagine what it would be like spending a dark night up there. It’s a place of stunning views and fascinating history; the echoes of the past still resonating behind the informative posters and the signs warning visitors about the potential slipperiness of the stairs. An architectural and historical palimpsest. We were hooked.
We got the harsh grey skies and the icy rain to complement this most imposing of castles. Built by England’s King Edward I, it’s big and gloomy with lots of stairs and battlements and walkways and arrow loops and dark holes that you definitely don’t want to drop your camera into. It’s big enough to give even the most avid castle adventurers a bit of castle fatigue; by the time we reached the room in which a video of the 1969 investiture of Prince Charles was playing on a loop, I was already pondering my lunch rather than the interesting history of this place. It needs two visits. And snacks.
Another one of Edward I’s projects, Beaumaris Castle was never finished. I found this to be a very peaceful place… perhaps because of the weather and the lack of field-tripping school children trying to climb the walls. We had a beautiful afternoon with pastel skies and a cold but gentle wind. The castle, with its rolling lawns and bits of greenery poking out of the masonry and pigeons roosting all over it, seemed a sleepy, even slightly melancholy place after the hardness of Caernarfon. There are some lovely archways and perfect views from the castle walls. We stayed until closing time.
If I had to choose the best of the bunch, it would probably be Conwy Castle, at least in part because of Conwy itself. It’s a quaint and lovely walled town with beautiful surroundings. The town walls, extensions of the castle structure, are mostly intact and you can walk along them to appreciate some amazing views. The castle itself, another Edward I creation, has multiple vantage points allowing you to look down into the stone layout of its interior with all its chambers and archways. I found the stairs less precarious than those of Caernarfon, but it was here that I managed to smack my head hard against a jutting piece of stone, stunning myself into brief tears. None of the visiting school children witnessed this, so my pride survived the incident. I was quite unwell on the day we visited Conwy, but I felt so much better after standing on top of the castle towers and letting myself be invigorated by the cold wind and by how epic everything looked. (This is one of the view occasions where the word ‘epic’ doesn’t feel like hyperbole at all.)
We were in Conwy Castle looking out over the estuary to the hills on the other side. A poster informed us that there had once been another castle straddling those hills. We’d walked the dog there a few times in the days before and had noted with interest the scraps of random masonry and bits of crumbling wall jutting out of the hillsides. What were they part of? Was it something very old? I was pleased to learn that the answers to these questions were ‘A castle’ and ‘Yes’. We had visited Deganwy Castle more than once without even realising it, its ruins slowly disappearing beneath the grass and grazing sheep and people walking their dogs through history and the wind.
There are many, many more castles to see and I’m looking forward to returning to Wales one day to see them. Castles make me feel small and temporary and insignificant, but in the best possible way. It’s exciting, being a little human fleck with the opportunity to sense the lives of other human flecks who existed long before me.