You may recall that recently I indulged a childhood fantasy and spent eight days exploring Welsh castles. I had the best time and took lots of pics so here are some edited highlights for you.
As you might have noticed, we don’t have any real castles in Australia so this was a rare treat. Years ago, I worked for a season as a tour guide at Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull, off the coast of Scotland but the Welsh castles are different in many ways: whilst the great Scottish clan castles were family bases, defended against intruders, the Welsh castles were mostly built by the English against the surrounding Welsh. Not surprisingly, the modern Welsh are pretty ambiguous about this form of their heritage, but the fortifications do stand as impressive ruined monuments and are popular among visitors. They’re mostly owned and managed by Cadw, the Welsh Heritage service.
Numbering over six hundred originally, most of them are now romantic ruins after they were destroyed in battle or afterwards when the victor wanted to put them out of service. They proved tough to demolish and so about a hundred survive. I enjoyed charting a course that took in a decent lot of them, without overdosing. Thankfully they’re all quite different and many are in spectacular locations.
Castles are strategic constructions, so they tend to be on significant sites: high on hills overlooking the sea or river, or in the middle of towns. Some are just as they have been left by time, whilst others have restored portions, so you can see what life was like for their inhabitants. Very cold, judging by all the enormous fireplaces. Most have some form of heritage interpretation, whether it’s a fly-your-own-dragon hologram at Caenarfon or a sign indicating that Rudolph Hess, prisoner of war, painted at Whitecastle during WW2. Cadw is all over the appeal of dragons and castles to kids, which is great to see: families form a big part of their audience.
Any of the staffed sites will naturally attract admission fees but unmanned sites are free to enter. I got really good value out of my Cadw membership, which gives you free entry to all of them, plus many other great sites like Tintern Abbey. The variation in entry fees work as a good indication of which are the best sites, in case you have any trouble choosing. Also, it has to be said that you don’t have to pay to see any of them really, because the best views are from a distance. But I do like exploring and it’s important to support heritage organisations.
I was lucky to be visiting in summer when the weather was good and the stone floors dry (and the blue skies made for nice backgrounds). They must be unpleasant in wet weather. They’re not very safe places either, with narrow, dark corridors and winding staircases. Some of the parapets were very windy, and some of the walls far too low to be safe. I had to lie on the grass hill outside Harlech’s walls because I felt like I was going to fall off the cliff. Let’s not mention wheelchair access, it’s non-existent for most sites, and severely limited when it is there so if it matters, check before visiting. I was grateful for my sturdy boots and sunhat.
Here are some of my favourite castles:
Beaumaris Castle was a personal favourite – it’s such a lovely castle, a handleable size (not too big) and situated in a pretty Welsh seaside town. They had a nice toy for the kids: you could hammer out the replica blacksmith pieces so the castle could once again sound like it did in medieval days. The best moat too. I grew to love the ‘danger’ signs that became familiar at every castle, even if I misunderstood some of their meanings.
Caerphilly Castle was the one that started it for me: when I was twelve I made a model for a school assignment, so it was the one I wanted to see most of all, but the real Caerphilly is enormous and very hard to capture up close. Spectacular of course, and the town is lovely. They’ve done a lot of reconstruction and conservation here, and you can hire the grand hall for events: it was set up as for a wedding on the day I visited.
Caernarfon is a must see: one of the grandest, and best preserved, perhaps because it’s owned by the Queen. It hosts some excellent heritage interpretation and is also worth seeing for the walled town it dwells next to. The location next to the sea is wonderful too: I think I’ve seen more amazing photos of Caernarfon than any other Welsh castle. Impressive portcullis tracks too: photo below shows a triple portcullis on one gate!
Careg Cennan was the classic castle you see on the hill from a distance – you see quite a few of these as you travel the single-lane roads – but the hill was higher than most, and the castle bigger too. There weren’t many of us there on the day I visited and I felt like they all passed me on the way down because when I finally arrived up the steep climb, I found myself in eerie silence. It was quite magical. I had the place to myself and wandered at leisure. I took the advice of one of my fellow travellers and missed out on the damp and dark cave but enjoyed sitting on the bench thoughtfully provided by the estate of someone who had loved it there. It’s not as impressive as the other castles but quite a special, spiritual place. If I lived closer, I’d visit often. Decent tearoom too (every good castle has a good tearoom).
Carew castle would look prettier if its lake location was full of water, which sadly due to the very hot weather, it wasn’t but you could still see that it would be the most romantic of settings, a large castle with massive anachronistic windows. Like Raglan, it shows signs of conversion to a mansion as fashions changed and was an Elizabethan home for its aristocratic owner. I found the windows fascinating.
Conwy castle was my first castle and you can’t miss it as you cross the suspension bridge: it dominates the town in every respect. After I had drunk my fill and walked up the hill to the car I passed many lost looking people, and was able to confidently assure them that once they walked around the corner, they’d know exactly where the castle was. It’s hard to believe it’s invisible at any stage in this picturesque location. Conwy is another must-see.
Harlech castle was my favourite, simply because it stirred the most emotion. Part of that is because you can’t help but sing “Men of Harlech” as you walk the parapets, but mostly because it’s quite a frightening place. It totally dominates the landscape, and the pretty town it graces. It feels like a place that people have battled and died, badly. Another must, and when you go, don’t miss the home made ice cream shop: the William Pear is excellent.
One of the things I loved was seeing all the signs in Welsh as well as English. It reinforces that you’re in another country. Harlech has the best danger signs, with all the information. Perhaps because it’s one of the riskiest sites, so you have to take care. I met a lady who was worried about her lost child. I’m sure he was okay, but when I wanted to roll off the cliff, I wasn’t so sure.
Laugharne is really nice: the location is really pleasant and the castle shares its location with Dylan Thomas’ home and studio. It’s a lovely walk along the coast to get there too, although I’m not sure that drink coasters make the best souvenir for a man who died from his drinking. The castle itself is best seen from the picnic grounds below but the Cadw man was friendly and witty, and reminded me of my favourite Vicar of Dibley character. Nice visit.
Raglan castle is very castle-y in style, and bears the distinction of being built by a Welshman. Like Caerphilly, it has been restored in parts and has excellent interpretation. It has a lot to reward the visitor as it’s large, has a castle cat and you can go everywhere (unlike Caerphilly, which has closed off sections). A favourite and highly recommended: it also looks amazing as you speed past on the freeway.
I hope you enjoyed my edited highlights! I had a wonderful time. You can see more castle pics (and highlights of the rest of my UK trip) on instagram.