The country of Wales may only be Massachusetts’ size, but just like its counterpart across the pond, every nook and cranny is full of history. 500-plus castles can be found in this part of the United Kingdom, in various degrees of disrepair and/or restoration, often seen on the hillsides as one speeds down the busy motorways. I explored five really special ones, coming away with a greater appreciation of Welsh history and its people.
A sense of déjà vu at Conwy Castle
The coastal city of Conwy, about 45 minutes drive from Manchester’s airport, proudly displays its old medieval walls, many of which can be walked on like that of the Great Wall of China). Three gateways remain standing in the city that dates back from the time of Edward I and his post-conquest activities of North Wales in 1282. But even more conspicuous is the UNESCO World Heritage Site Conwy Castle.
When it was built by Edward I from 1283-1289, it was at great expense (some £15,000 – equivalent to £15 million today) to help serve as one of his “Iron Ring” castles that helped to keep the English safe in Wales while fortifying his new empire there. The exterior and interior walls remain relatively intact, and I found it to be quite an experience walking through the various rooms including the king’s chamber, dining hall, kitchen, and prison.
I felt as if I were back in medieval times, especially when I went inside the castle chapel, where the soundtrack of Gregorian monks was playing in the midst of displays about Christianity’s role in that time. I also was fascinated by the countless arrow slits carved into the walls, expecting a shooter to be taking aim.
Two fortified gateways and eight towers help make up the grandness of this place. Four of them contain high towers where I got stunning views of the city, sea, and Conwy Mountain. And as I walked up the spiralling staircases to get those views with only the help of ropes to keep me from falling, I could feel a sense of “home sweet home” in each part of the structure, despite its massive size overall, where now the only “royals” taking up residence there are pigeons and gulls.
Bodelwyddan Castle: a National Portrait Galley hub
Even though Wales is famous for medieval castles, one such “mock” castle off the A55 motorway (a 30 minute drive from the Welsh border) is one that I found quite charming. It serves as an outpost for London’s National Portrait Galley: Bodelwyddan Castle.
Bodelwyddan stands on land where property ownership purportedly goes back before the time of the Norman Conquest, and has recorded history dating from 1461, when the Humphreys family got this land as compensation for being booted off the Isle of Angelsey by Edward IV.
From 1830-1850, the prominent Sir John Williams led the creating of an old time castle, including adding limestone walls, which actually were heated to protect the fruit orchards during cold weather.
My senses took in the pastoral surroundings of Bodelwyddan on a partly cloudy and blustery day as I walked up the hill, noticing mature parkland where sheep were snacking on grass. Surrounding the castle is an array of well-manicured gardens and footpaths where the sound of singing blackbirds in the beech and oak trees interrupted the whistling of the gusts. Once inside the castle, I was immediately greeted by a large painting of Queen Victoria.
This branch of the National Portrait Gallery stresses Victorian Era portraits of prominent British people, hung in rooms that were restored in the 1980s to emulate the reserved opulence of the Victorian lifestyle. The library itself copies that time with more fakery – painted books for the library and wood panelling that’s really painted plaster, known as “trompe l’oeil,” French for “trick the eye.” Yet real Victorian furnishings do abound here, from furniture to a grand 1840s billiard table as well as a Williams silver centrepiece that’s insured for £250,000.
For the kids, there’s an interactive games and dress up area on the third floor of the home, which happens to get the most reports of paranormal activity. Mysterious human bones were found near a chimney in 1829, and the venue served as a girls’ school (Lowther College) from 1920-82, which explains the uneven wear on some of the lower floors where their feet constantly trampled.
Stand where Prince Charles once stood at Caernarfon Castle
If you want to know just how hard medieval life was even for folks, just visit a fortress like Caernarfon Castle on a cold and rainy morning like I did. As I walked through its long passageways and explored the interior rooms whose walls are still intact some 700 years after being built, the chill and drafts went through my layered clothing to my bones. Much of the castle remains intact from the time it was constructed between 1283-1330 for £25,000. After Edward I conquered Wales, he imagined a grand castle based on the dream of Roman emperor Magnus Maximus (whose body was found in the area).
Maximus envisioned such a place located within a city amidst mountains and opposite an island (matching Caernarfon’s description), so James of Saint George was put in charge of building it. The king desired polygonal and colored band walls (some twenty feet thick) like those of Constantinople to serve as the “capital” of North Wales, even creating a new town, destroying the old Welsh settlement. Locals were conscripted as manpower, and were paid in silver pennies.
Despite all the expense, many of the plans for it never materialized, and it shows today as I noted the various stones sticking out of walls for future development. Normally, the castle had 20-40 people defending it in its early days. What made the castle easier to defend were the ingenious way that three soldiers with bow and arrows could be stationed to shoot through what appeared on the inside of the castle to be three arrow slits, but in effect, those three arrows would come out through just one slit in the outer wall of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, which survived demolition orders in the 17th century!
Caernarfon was once a motte and bailey castle (castle on a mound surrounded by a courtyard). This mound still resides within the courtyard as a dais made of Welsh slate. Caernarfon was the scene of two Princes of Wales getting their official titles, that being Edward VIII in 1911 and then Prince Charles in 1969. The northeast tower has an extensive exhibit of those two investitures, including Charles’ BBC telecast. Charles walked through the Queen’s Gate to greet his subjects, something which I got to do, as a special balcony exists for photo ops.
Those two investitures have roots of the aftermath of the English conquest. Edward I helped to stymie some of the resentment by Welsh locals by presenting his firstborn son, Edward II, to them as a prince born in Wales who couldn’t speak any English. Ironically, the little baby wasn’t given his Prince of Wales title there, but at the Parliament of Lincoln.
I got even more appreciation of Welsh castle history via a 20-plus minute feature film called the “Eagle and the Dragon,” where actors dressed in medieval period costumes staged some re-enactments, and still photos helped history visually come alive. It’s located in the Eagle Tower, where the king would reside when he was in Caernarfon, and which was protected above by a cluster of high turrets that can be explored.
The King’s room itself was grand, and did contain a personal chapel and fireplace to help fend off the chill. The Queen’s Tower also has remnants of nicer accommodations, and it’s here where many Welsh armies’ artefacts and historical exhibits are featured.
Splurge on the “Grey Lady” ghost at Ruthin Castle
While the Vale of Clwyd is the beginning of some incredible footpaths with steep angles going up hundreds of feet in the Clwydian Hills that’ll challenge any hiker, the town of Ruthin (an hour’s drive from Manchester) has a castle with the same namesake that’s located just above the base of the valley. It sits on grounds once allegedly housing a fort where King Arthur kept a little “love nest” for one of his mistresses. But its confirmed date for a standing edifice dates back to 1277, when Edward I secured it for his kingdom against the rebellious Welsh.Later, it was even owned by Reginald de Grey, who chased Robin Hood’s Merry Men around the countryside.
Some of the castle walls remain intact despite the 11 weeks of shelling it withstood during the English Civil War in 1646 plus further neglect. I took note of the improvements made during Queen Victoria’s reign, which I found not only showed in the exterior, but with the décor on the inside that tries to imitate the Victorian Era, i.e., the “trompe l’oeil” wallpaper that can be found in the spacious rooms that contain all the modern conveniences medieval kings would deem as sorcery: big screen TVs, free internet access, and electronic heat controls.
I explored what was left of the medieval fortifications by walking around the old walls, and was greeted by some of the 16 peacocks who live there and wail away while the sun is up. I peeked through the old cooking area, one of the places where apparitions have been spotted. I also went to the gravesite of the “grey lady,” who was buried after being executed for killing the lover of her husband, one of the commanders of Edward I. I didn’t see anything mid-afternoon, so I waited until dusk to try to find this poor soul, but alas, she was no where to be found.
I highly recommend the yummy-tasting braised lamb that comes with minted mashed potatoes, which I savoured in the spacious bar, which has comfortable sofas to sit on while dining.
North Wales Recommendations
About a 20 minute drive to the north of Ruthin is Denbigh Castle, which was completed in 1295 for one of Edward I’s commanders Henry de Lacy. I found it fascinating to walk around and take in stunning countryside views. Much of the outer exterior walls exist, including the Grate Gate House (main entrance), kitchen and chamber areas. I was able to walk on top of some battlements. A five to ten minute walk took me outside the castle to the Goblin Tower, where some of the castle’s water supply existed and where de Lacy’s son fell to his death, and purportedly haunts it. I was creeped out walking down the descending stairs to the well. Mysterious music and voices have been heard in the prison section.
I stayed at the Castle Hotel in Conwy. The room I slept contained a comfortable bed, space, and free high speed internet. Famous people like Samuel Johnson, Charlotte Bronte, and William Wordsworth have stayed on these grounds, which used to house a Cistercian Abbey, dating from the time of Edward I. An alleged ghost named “George” may visit your room, taking your stuff, but then returning it later, or he may throw water on your clothes left on the floor.
Pictures credit to Roy A. Barnes and may not be used without permission.
Roy A. Barnes attended a press trip sponsored by Visit Wales, but what he wrote were his own impressions without any scrutiny or vetting by the sponsor. He writes from southeastern Wyoming.