The 4 Impressive World Heritage Castles of Wales
It’s now a month that we have been touring through Wales; time for our first post, about the castles built by Edward I in Wales. After a successful war against the Welsh, Edward I wanted to ‘cement’ his stronghold in the country. So he ordered the construction of seven new castles, in strategically important locations.
Four of these castles, designed by the architect James of St George, are now considered to be of such importance that they are UNESCO World Heritage Listed as a group. James of St George already had a reputation as one of the best castle builders of the time, a trade he had learned from his stonemason father. His design ideas are regarded as innovative and clever for the late 13th and early 14th century.
The four sites are divided into two walled cities with an adjoining castle, and two free-standing castles. Each one shows unique and site-specific layouts and design ideas. All in all, it was enormous undertaking, costing the king dearly, demonstrated by the fact that two were never finished due to lack of funding.
Conwy Fortified Town and Castle
Conwy was the first of the four we came to, as we were driving from Liverpool into Wales. It’s also the only castle we didn’t visit inside, partly because we hadn’t considered a Cadw membership at the time. [More about the Cadw membership below!] The second reason was that a large part of the site was occupied with scaffolding and restoration work at the time of our visit.
The old part of the town is confined within the fortification wall, which is still fairly complete around three sides of the town. Only the harbour facing side of the wall is incomplete. You can climb up new steel stairs, and then walk along the top of the wall, which gives a fairly clear impression of the size of town and its fortifications.
Conwy, as with most other castles at the time, was mostly built with conscript labour. Only the expert stonemasons and other important trades were paid a decent wage.
Beaumaris – the Greatest Castle Never Built
Next we drove on to the island of Anglesey and the castle of ‘Beau Mareys’ (fair marshes), now commonly known as Beaumaris. It was the last of the strongholds started by Edward I. Work began in 1295 but was abandoned after 35 years because money had run out. Edward I had shifted his attention to conquering Scotland. UNESCO considers
“the castles of Beaumaris and Harlech are unique artistic achievements for the way they combine characteristic 13th century double-wall structures with a central plan, and for the beauty of their proportions and masonry.”
We can’t add much to this perfect assessment except that, once again, we unfortunately found “our entrance fees at work”, in the form of scaffolding blocking access to the main hall building.
Caernarfon Castle and Walled Town
The third of the World Heritage Listing we visited was Caernarfon. The castle of Caernarfon is owned by the Queen of England, under the care of Cadw. This is where Prince Charles was crowned as the current Prince of Wales in 1969. Its design is said to be inspired by Constantinople of the times. Construction began in 1283 and went on for nearly fifty years. Despite that, the castle was never completed as planned.
It’s an imposing structure, sitting right by the edge of the water. The outer walls have a banded design, where stones of alternating colours are laid in straight lines for the entire length of the outer walls. Inside the courtyard you get the best impression of its sheer size. You can climb several of its towers right to the top, from where you get some excellent views of the town and across the Menai Strait to the island of Anglesey – a truly commanding location.
The walled town of Caernarfon is also worth walking around and through. Most of the houses lining the cobbled streets seem to be centuries old, and are now home to shops and restaurants catering to visitors. As in most Welsh towns, almost everybody seems to close shop at 5pm.
Harlech Castle, at the Foot of Snowdonia
The last of the UNESCO listed castles is Harlech, in the small town of the same name. When you visit this site you have to consider that the sea bay has since silted up; Harlech was originally built right at the water front and could be provisioned from the ocean. Its outer walls reached right down to a pier to unload ships in relative safety.
King Edward I never slept a single night in his castle, but his chief architect and castle builder James of St George and his wife resided at Harlech for several years. In the early 1400s, the Welsh managed to occupy Harlech and it became the royal court of Owain Glyndŵr.
The Welsh Struggle for Independence
It doesn’t matter, which castle you visit in Gwynedd (the Welsh name for this northern part of their country), you will always be confronted by the history of this nation’s struggle for independence.
Throughout history, this small proud nation of mostly sheep farmers suffered through occupation by foreign forces. First the Romans, then Vikings and other Scandinavians, the Normans, and later the English. Periods of freedom and independence were always rather short, marred by violent clashes with outside forces who wanted to occupy these fertile lands.
Because of this, or despite it (depending on which way you look at it), the Welsh warriors were always considered some of the strongest and fiercest. Even King Edward I’s formidable castles couldn’t always resist their onslaught. Each one of them had been occupied by the Welsh at some time or another.
Nowadays, the Welsh culture probably receives more recognition than it had through the previous centuries. Every single sign and piece of paper in the country is printed in 2 languages; Welsh is taught in most schools, and around one quarter are Welsh medium schools; and you meet many people who speak Welsh as their first language. Even loudspeaker announcements in supermarkets are in Welsh and English – sometimes Welsh first, sometimes English first.
Practical Information for Visiting the Gwynedd UNESCO World Heritage Castles
All castles are under care of the Welsh Cadw Organisation [pronounced ˈkaːdu, meaning to keep]. This organisation has over 120 properties under its umbrella.
The entrance fee for the individual castles is between
£6.90 (Beaumaris & Harlech) and
£9.50 (Conwy & Caernarfon) per adult.
Lower prices for children, senior citizens (over 60 – no proof required), students, and families (2 adults + 2 children).
In view of the individual prices we decided to buy an annual membership with Cadw when visiting Beaumaris (because we travel so slowly). Prices for the annual membership are between £17 and £41.50 for single persons, £45 and £63 for a joint membership. As ‘seniors’ we paid £45 (compare: reduced senior single rates at Conwy & Caernarfon are £8.50).
Cadw also offers special passes for tourists visiting Wales and these are excellent value if you stay for a shorter time and plan to visit several sites:
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You can buy these passes directly at the entrance gates of all sites or from participating travel agencies.
But note that there’s no ‘Senior’ ticket! We paid only £11 more than the couple price for the 3-day pass, or less than for a 7-day pass – with no time restriction for one year.
Cadw has an excellent mobile app, listing all its properties with detailed description, location, current entrance fees, and several photos. You can use the overall map to explore the properties nearest to you. (App available for Android and iPhone )
In Wales we find that our habit of starting slowly in the morning seems to be to our advantage all the time. We visited most sites at or after lunchtime, in part because we packed up and drove to them in the morning. At each and every one we had the impression that it was a good time to arrive, as crowds were starting to thin out considerably. Most people seem to visit the historic sights early in the day and then populate surrounding pubs and restaurants for lunch… Only in Beaumaris did we notice a bus with tourists arrive when we left just after 2pm.
My very personal opinion is that if you only have time to visit one of the sites then make it Caernarfon. In my view, it’s the best kept and is certainly the largest of all. Information at this site is fairly comprehensive and wandering through the old walled town is rather pleasant.
Further Reading & Information Online
- The entry “Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd” on Wikipedia contains several good photos and a very detailed history of each of them.
- The entry “James of Saint George” on Wikipedia tells you more about this architect, who became world famous for overseeing the construction of these WHC listed castles.
- This excellent article by the BBC explains Wales’ struggle through the centuries.
Wales: English Conquest of Wales c.1200 – 1415
- The UNESCO World Heritage Listing “Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd”
- The Cadw listing, which includes one more castle built by Edward I:
Wales History Map: Castles of Edward I