I never get tired of castles. It’s just as well because North Wales is full of them, some crumbling away on overgrown mountainsides, others preening themselves for the visitor. There are so many, and of such quality, that four of them have gone and gotten themselves (and their associated town walls) designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Here, on the ramparts of Caernarfon, I’m visiting probably the best of them. It’s the best preserved; you can walk most of its walls and climb the cumulative hundreds of steps to its dozen or so polygonal towers and turrets. I’m not sure I have the strength: I’ve panted my way to the top of one of them and that’ll do for me, thank you. Time for a rest, and to enjoy the view.
Caernarfon and the Princes of Wales
The thirteenth-century castle is one of many with which Edward III bound the north of what was then the principality of Gwynedd in a ring of stone. From here it’s obvious why Caernarfon was chosen: The view shows how it commands the narrow seaway of the Menai Strait. Away to the west the brooding mountains of Snowdonia may have been seething with rebellious Welshmen, but the king made his castles secure.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You want the views without having to climb the mountains.
- The castles of North Wales are great for anyone interested in history..
- Kids will love running about playing at being knights in armour.
A shrewd political thinker, Edward wasn’t so foolish as to think that strength alone would secure Wales. Legend has it that, having slain the Welsh prince, he had to do some fancy political footwork to soothe the locals. “I will give you a prince of your own,” he’s said to have promised, “who can speak no word of English.” And he did just that, shipping his pregnant wife up to Caernarfon (history doesn’t record what she thought) to give birth. And then he presented them with their prince, right here in Caernarfon Castle.
I’m not sure how much truth there is in this but it makes a good tale. It’s certain that Edward was the one who initiated the tradition for the oldest son of the English (now British) monarch to have the title Prince of Wales and that’s what the huge circle of Welsh slate set into the middle of the castle is all about. It’s here that the present Prince was invested by his mother The Queen in 1969 in a ceremony laden with political symbolism of which crafty old Edward would surely have approved.
Caernarfon and the Menai Strait
Cadw, the government agency responsible for Caernarfon, calls it ‘a brute of a castle,’ and they aren’t kidding. I’m no good at estimating, but in places the walls must be ten feet thick.
Someone suggests a boat trip and we leap enthusiastically on the idea, leaving the castle for the adjacent pier, stepping carefully past the rows of young and not-so- who are sitting on the harbour wall fishing for crabs.
As the boat bumps up and down on the dangerous waters (the tide has a reputation for being fast and tricky along the whole of its length) we look out for seals on the sandbank. The castle looks just as impressive from here, rearing up at the harbour with the narrow streets of Caernarfon behind it, crammed within massive encircling walls which seem to clutch it against the fortress in a secure embrace.
“Boat trip or castle best?” I wonder aloud, but nobody answers. They’re busy unpacking their jumpers because even on a sunny day in Wales the wind can be bitterly chill.
Caernarfon and its three fellows, Beaumaris, Harlech and Conwy, make up the snappily-named world heritage site The Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd. They were built to subdue the Welsh but, as we wander round Caernarfon town,, now that we’ve got our land legs back and warmed up a bit, the local populace don’t seem particularly subdued. The opposite, in fact: They look pretty damned cheerful – probably because the ancient symbol of their oppression has turned into a tourist attraction and source of income for them — and after all these years that seems to suit everybody very nicely.
- Caernarfon Castle isn’t just a set of ruins – it houses permanent and temporary exhibitions and the military museum of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Boat trips leave from the pier next to the castle, weather and tides permitting
- If you want to see all of Beaumaris, Harlech and Conwy, as well as Caernarfon, it’s best to travel by car.
- All four of the castles are owned by the state and there is an admission charge (around $8.50 for an adult) – but you can buy a 3- or 7-day explorer pass which will give you admission to all of them and others besides