Friday, September 14, 2007

29 June: Castles of Kings

Just about everything at Tan-y-Foel is extraordinary, including breakfast. The breakfast room is swankily decorated with warm wood tones, a wall of wavy mirrors, and bright accent lighting. I usually don’t like to mix old and new, but they have done a really tasteful job here. After taking our coffee order, the man of the house (Mr. Pitman, I presume) gave us menus from which we could select two dishes. We both started with the mouthwatering porridge oats (a.k.a. oatmeal) topped with golden syrup and thick cream, followed by a hearty full English breakfast for John and poached eggs on toast for me. Thus fortified, we headed out under partly cloudy skies towards Conwy, the first of three of King Edward I’s mighty castles that we planned to visit today.

Edward I, who ruled England from 1272 to 1307, was quite an ambitious warmonger; he is perhaps best known for conquering the Welsh in the early years of his reign and later attempting, unsuccessfully, to do the same to the Scots (although he did manage to capture and execute the rabblerouser William Wallace of “Braveheart” fame). Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, self-proclaimed Prince of Wales, refused to pay homage to the English crown, which led to Edward I’s first campaign against the Welsh in 1276-77. Llywelyn was allowed to keep his title, although he was eventually put to death. His younger brother Dafydd started another rebellion in 1282, which was quickly quashed by Edward, who captured, tortured, and executed Dafydd the following year. To hammer his conquest into the hearts and minds of the Welsh people, Edward commenced construction of an “iron ring” of fortified castles across northern Wales, effectively hemming in the ancient Welsh stronghold of Snowdonia.

Of all of Edward's fortresses, the massive Conwy Castle, with its huge crenellated towers, tall curtain walls, and strategic position on a rocky promontory overlooking Conwy estuary, retains the most character of a classic medieval stronghold. The old town of Conwy is still enclosed by medieval walls, and the castle looms over the town as a crowning achievement of defensive architecture. After the ten-mile drive to the coast from Tan-y-Foel, the castle was the first thing we saw as we approached Conwy, its imposing bulk rising from a chunk of rock on the edge of the estuary like a stone sentinel right out of a fairytale (photo, right). We parked in a pay lot just outside the walls and entered the town through one of the mighty gates, approaching the castle by way of the “wall walk” – a narrow walkway on top of the ancient town wall. The walls are remarkably intact and you can circle nearly the entire city on the elevated walkway.

At the entrance to the castle we learned that our English Heritage visitor’s pass is ineligible for discounts in Wales (you only get the discount if you are a full English Heritage member), so we felt a bit duped. If it didn’t work here, that meant it probably wouldn’t work in Scotland either. That’s certainly not what they indicated when we bought the pass at Stonehenge. We ended up paying £17,50 for a three-day Welsh visitor pass, which would get us into all of the castles we wanted to visit today.

Conwy Castle follows the contours of the mound of rock it sits on: a long, narrow plan punctuated by eight huge towers with a gateway at each end. A cross wall divides the castle into two baileys – the larger, outer bailey, where the Great Hall and garrison buildings stood, and the inner bailey, which contained the royal apartments and private offices (the photo at right is looking down into the outer bailey). We entered the outer bailey from the west side, which was originally protected by a long stairway (now destroyed), a drawbridge, and three fortified gates. Interpretive signs guided us through the castle and into the towers, several of which you can climb all the way to the top via dizzying spiral staircases. Four of the towers have crenellated turrets that rise even higher, from these the defenders would have had a fantastic view of any approaching enemies. Little remains of the living quarters inside the walls (some of which were made of wood), but you can see the shells of several of the structures, including the Great Hall and the royal apartments. Many of the towers and the Great Hall itself still have their empty stone hearths built into the walls, even though the wooden floors are long gone, and fragments of the stone arches that supported the ceilings give some hint to the grandeur of the rooms. The crumbling towers were very atmospheric with their thick growth of clinging plants, many of which were in bloom, turning the castle into a hanging garden of sorts. We climbed up several of the towers, including two of the high turrets, for spectacular views out across the town and the harbor, which was full of moored sailboats. The weather was cooperating for once – the clouds had dispersed and we had more sunshine and blue sky than we’d seen in a week.

After touring the castle we stopped in at the knight’s shop across the street, where you can buy reproduction swords and crossbows or research your family crest, then walked down the quay, past the smallest house in Britain (it’s six feet wide and ten feet long, if you really want to know). At the end of the quay the medieval wall stretches out into the harbor. We walked out on it to get a nice view of the castle and waterfront, then we found a staircase in the wall and climbed up to the wall walk. We peered down at the rows of cheerful townhouses and glimpsed tiny backyard gardens dripping with greenery and summer blooms. At periodic intervals, huge half-moon watchtowers rise up above the wall, and some of these you can climb for even better views. The town is set on a slope that falls gently to the sea, so the wall climbs steadily upwards to a high point directly opposite the castle. From here we had a sweeping view across the town, protectively encircled by its ancient stone walls, and out to the brilliant blue harbor and the whitecapped sea beyond (photo, right). Behind us, the mountains of Snowdonia rose above verdant hills dotted with…sheep, of course!

Our next stop was Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey, the largest island directly off the shore of Wales and England. To reach it we took the coastal A55 and crossed over to the island on the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait. We took a slow, meandering road around the southeastern edge of the island to the small town of Beaumaris, where we found a free one-hour parking spot on the street. The town, a pleasant collection of pastel-colored Georgian townhouses and shops, grew up around Beaumaris Castle in the late 13th century, the last and largest of Edward I’s fortifications. Built on a nearly level bit of land protected from the surf (Beaumaris means “beautiful marsh”), there were no topographical anomolies to disrupt the castle’s perfect symmetry. Of all the castles I have visited, its layout best exemplifies the classic features of medieval military architecture: a lower outer bailey, or defensive wall, with towers placed at even intervals, surrounded by a watered moat with a dock on the south side (photo, right), and an almost perfectly square inner bailey with 15½-foot-thick walls, a massive tower at each of the four corners, two more towers on the east and west walls, and two enormous gatehouses on the north and south sides (the north gatehouse is pictured below). The south gatehouse was the main entrance and is protected by a barbican, a stone wall that juts out from the righthand tower, turning at a sharp right angle to be parallel with the bailey wall. The barbican would have forced attackers to be funneled through a narrow corridor and turn sharply to the left to go through the gate. Defenders on the walls above could then attack them from all sides. A wall walk links all of the towers of the inner bailey except for the gatehouses, where the walk is barred by doorways and a short open section. In medieval times, these open sections would be crossed by wooden bridges that could be removed if necessary, separating the gatehouses from the rest of the walls. The gatehouse towers were thus the last line of defense, should both the outer and inner baileys be penetrated.

Beaumaris was never completed and has been significantly dismantled. It looks like someone chopped off the upper half of the towers with a sweep of a massive sledgehammer. The interior of the castle is completely empty save for a few stone foundations. But you can wander through the long, dark passages of the inner bailey and climb up on top a section of the walls, from which you can see back across the Menai Strait to the lush Welsh coastline and the brooding mountains of Snowdonia. After we toured the castle we walked outside the walls along the moat, but unfortunately I couldn’t get the classic “Beaumaris and Snowdonia” shot that I had seen in posters without climbing over a fence into a sheep pasture, which I figured would be frowned upon.

We crossed back to the mainland via a chain suspension bridge designed by Thomas Telford in 1826 and headed southwest along the Menai Strait to Caernarfon. We found a parking space in town and walked through a small, rather rundown shopping district towards the castle, which we had only glimpsed from the road. It was late afternoon already and the town looked pretty dead. The castle, however, was most impressive; its walls and towers are the most intact of the castles we visited today. It stands on a strategically important site near the mouth of the Menai Strait, originally the site of a Roman fort and later an 11th-century mott-and-bailey castle. The castle we see today was begun by Edward I in 1283, after his armies had overrun Snowdonia. It follows an hourglass-shaped plan with two gatehouses and nine high towers. The castle’s polygonal towers and walls of striated light-and-dark stone were influenced by those of Constantinople, as Edward I was also an ardent Crusader. The castle was taken by Welsh forces when it was still under construction in 1294, but later withstood sieges in 1403 and 1404.

Caernarfon is perhaps most famously known as the birthplace of Edward II, the first English Prince of Wales. Edward I promised to give the Welsh chieftains a ruler who spoke no English, and so it was to Caernarfon that he sent his wife, Eleanor of Castile, to give birth to a son “who spoke no English, had been born on Welsh soil, and whose first words would be spoken in Welsh.” Every generation thereafter, the eldest son of the English royal family has been invested as the Prince of Wales at this very castle, as Prince Charles was in 1969.

We entered the castle via the King’s Gate on the town side and spent the next hour or so exploring the labyrinth of walls and towers. We hiked up to the top of the King’s Tower with its three turrets, from which we had a magnificent view down into the castle (photo, above), the surrounding hills, and the tidal waters of the strait. We stopped to watch a 20-minute film about the history of Caernarfon and the rest of Edward’s castles and the role they played in the subjugation of the Welsh people. The film left us with haunting images of the mountains of Snowdonia, which served as the last stronghold of the Welsh fighters. John went into the museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers while I scrambled around the walls for a while longer. It was after 5:30 when we were ready to leave, only to find ourselves locked in; the man at the ticket window had to unlock the door in the massive gate to let us out.

We drove out along the road opposite the castle to get some pictures (photo, right)and then made our way back overland through the Llanberis Pass to Betws-y-Coed. Along the way we spied the remains of Dolbadarn Castle, built by Llywelyn ap Iorweth sometime before 1230 to guard the route into Snowdonia. Apparently the Welsh didn’t have the same access to military engineers – or large pocketbooks – as their English rivals. The ruin is dominated by a round tower which stands lonely watch over the waters of Llyn Padarn. A bit further on we passed Electric Mountain, a power station built inside an abandoned slate mine so as to protect the scenery of Snowdonia, as well as the Welsh Slate Museum. As we continued towards Capel Curig, we stumbled upon the gorgeous craggy valley of Llanberis, where we finally got to see the real splendor of Snowdonia – albeit half-obscured in the clouds – and began to understand why the park is such a mecca for hikers and climbers. The road winds up a narrow valley, lined on either side by low slate walls. Dozens of waterfalls cascaded down green slopes all around us, sheep grazed on the impossibly steep hillsides, and more slate walls crisscrossed the pastures as if they had grown right out of the earth. Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in England and Wales (though not that high at 3,560 feet), was up in the clouds somewhere to our right. We were running late and it was starting to rain again so we couldn’t stop for pictures – I had to settle for the less-than-stellar shots I could snap out the window. We drove through Betws-y-Coed on the way back, located a bank and a gas station, and decided to come back to check out the town in the morning.

We made it back to Tan-y-Foel just before 7:00, so we had to hurry to get ready for dinner. Our meal was not quite as spectacular as last night (although the ambience was a bit more lively with three other couples there). I had a slab of roasted “stripy” bacon with red cabbage and honey dressing, while John had the confit of mullet with spiced sweet corn relish and mango and lime dressing. We both had the halibut with runner beans, salmon potato cake, and a port wine cream sauce, accompanied by a nice Australian chardonnay. We had homemade pannatone bread pudding for dessert, which was positively delicious! After dinner we retired to the lounge again, where John tried another port and I had a very generous glass of Sauternes.

And so ends our brief forway into Wales – tomorrow we head back to England, for a brief stopover in the Lake District on our way north to Scotland.

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