FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Conwy Castle, Plaw Mawr and the Conwy Suspension Bridge

Posted in Conwy, Wales by folkestonejack on March 27, 2016

The last day of our short break in North Wales brought us to Conwy, primarily to see Edward I’s grand castle of 1287 but also to lap up the many other historic sights in the town – a 14th-century merchant’s house, a remarkable Elizabethan townhouse and Telford’s suspension bridge.

Conwy Castle is an impressive sight from every angle, sitting on a rocky outcrop that overlooks the river and the surrounding countryside. It is all the more remarkable to consider that it took just four years to complete construction. Work started in the immediate aftermath of Edward I’s victory over the Welsh forces at Aberconwy in 1283 – quite a contrast to the protracted building works at Caernarfon.

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

You can better appreciate the way that Conwy Castle dominates the landscape from the vantage point of the town wall walk and from across the river, though the best views are apparently to be found from Benarth Hill. The weather was a little too unpredictable for us to contemplate this, starting with torrential rain but progressing through to brilliant blue skies by early afternoon. As we headed back to Bangor the clouds rolled back in, delivering thunder, lightning and hail in abundance!

The castle probably feels more brutal to modern eyes, stripped of its lavish interiors and with just the bare walls to give you a feel for its layout, but in its time it was fit for kings – both Edward I and Edward II spent time at the castle. After this, conditions deterioriated to such an extent that it was said that no castle in North Wales was fit for Edward III to stay.

It has to be said that Conwy Castle was not exactly a destination of choice. Edward I only spent a miserable Christmas here when he was cut off from his army by flooding and Richard II’s stay here ended in his capture and eventual abdication (it was in the royal chapel, which survives to this day, that Richard II was assured of Bolingbroke’s good intentions by a treacherously sworn oath from the Earl of Northumberland).

Plas Mawr

Plas Mawr

Although the castle was the big draw, we found the other sights in town to be much more satisfying. Plas Mawr, an Elizabethan townhouse, was a particular delight with its abundance of bold design, beautiful plasterwork and remarkable furniture. A short walk away is Aberconwy House, a medieval merchant’s house and sometime temperance hotel, which is worth a look if you have National Trust membership.

Another delight in Conwy was Thomas Telford’s impressive chain suspension bridge (1826) which formed an essential link in the highway between Chester and Holyhead until it closed in November 1958. We made a short visit to the castellated tollhouse at one end and wondered how the tollkeepers, David and Maria Williams, ever managed to bring up four children in this tiny space!

The Toll House

The Toll House

Our day out in Conwy served up plenty of history in a concentrated space, a tasty meal at The Castle Hotel and plenty of variation in the weather! The visit also completed our short weekend break in North Wales and left us with a quiet evening in Bangor before a half-day journey home.

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Playing castles at Penrhyn

Posted in Bangor, Wales by folkestonejack on March 26, 2016

A horrible weather forecast for the day (heavy rain from sunrise to sunset c/o storm katie) saw us look indoors for our day’s sightseeing, picking out the nineteenth century fantasy that is Penrhyn Castle. To be perfectly honest, we didn’t know all that much about the castle before our visit and assumed that we were visiting a traditional stately home. How wrong could we be!?

Although Penrhyn Castle is built on an ancient site, this building is an elaborate confection with pseudo Norman styling built in 1820-32 with funds of dubious origins (the wealth of the family owed a lot to the slave plantations of the West Indies). It has been a tourist attraction for its entire life, with a tourist route established by Lord Penrhyn and visitors shown around the building before the work was complete. It’s not hard to appreciate the draw when you step inside to see the truly exquisite interiors and craftsmanship on display (interestingly, most of the elements that you can see are the work of local stonemasons and carpenters).

Penrhyn Castle in the gloom of an Easter downpour

Penrhyn Castle in the gloom of an Easter downpour

It took us only five minutes to reach the gate to the property by bus from Bangor (stop: Castell Llandegai) but a further 15 minutes to walk down the driveway, by which point we were thoroughly soaked. A courtesy bus took us up to the property, sparing us a further drenching, and from this point on we moved between buildings at a dash!

The postcards and guidebooks show a remarkable building set in beautiful parkland but we couldn’t appreciate any of that in the gloomy conditions of the day which served only to accentuate the slightly forbidding nature of the exterior. It is an astonishing vision for a home, though perhaps not the easiest place to live in!

Our first stop was the industrial railway museum in the stables block, which opens an hour before the main house. It tells the story of industrial railways such as the system that grew up to serve Lord Penrhyn’s slate quarries at Bethesda and transport the raw material to Port Penrhyn, Bangor. The museum holds a small collection of steam locomotives, including a couple that worked on the Penrhryn Quarry Railway itself.

The main house opened at midday and we made a dash around the building to reach the entrance (passing through a wonderful doorway with an arch of carved heads and two wolves staring at each other). Once I made it inside I was struck by a series of bronzed iron lamps, each with a set of four snarling wolf heads, that line the narrow entrance gallery. Nothing quite prepares you for the surprise of the vast empty grand hall that lies beyond this with the most incredible stone carving and stained glass, illuminated by lamps hanging from the mouths of three headed stone beasts.

It soon became clear that the interior deserves the slowest of wanders to truly appreciate the detail, whether that be a small carved head on the walls or a medieval style archway. The fusion of medieval and Nordic design with colourful wallpaper and fabrics makes for some of the most vibrant interiors that I have seen in a long while. In one sense the gloom outside helped to intensify the romantic allure of spaces like the drawing room with the only light coming from elaborate tall bronze candelabras. Besides the great hall, highlights of the building include the library, chapel and the grand staircase. The latter features what the guidebook aptly describes as ‘an orgy of fantastic carving’ and a ‘riot of plaster’ yet only goes part way towards describing how mad it is!

The curves of the jaw-dropping grand hall

The curves of the jaw-dropping grand hall

Penrhyn Castle has to be seen to be believed, with all attempt at illustration or explanation insufficient to capture the absolutely bonkers opulence of the place. One early visitor had it spot-on when he said that what could once only have been accomplished by a monarch is today executed as a plaything, with increased magnificence, by a country gentleman!

Admission to Penrhyn Castle is not cheap, coming in at £12.50 for an adult if you are not a member of the National Trust. It’s a price worth paying as this is a remarkable building – it had been an itinerary filler and a response to the poor weather forecast but actually turned out to be the unexpected highlight of our trip to North Wales. It was a shame that we couldn’t fully appreciate the exterior but the rain was hammering down so hard that it would have been quite unwise to wander too far from cover!

The Easter weekend saw a number of family friendly events, including an Easter bunny hunt in the main house. So often these sorts of events can detract from anyone trying to appreciate the beauty of the buildings but the hunt was so tastefully staged that it would have taken a curmudgeon not to smile at a bunny seated at the dining table with a plateful of carrots or the bunny taking a soak in a bathtub. It was a delight to see and you couldn’t help joining in the amusement at spotting bunnies making themselves at home!

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Might and majesty – Caernarfon’s fortress-palace

Posted in Caernarfon, Wales by folkestonejack on March 25, 2016

The magnificent castles of Edward I in Wales have long been on a list of home attractions that I have wanted to explore, but for one reason or another it has taken me a while to get around to climbing aboard a train to North Wales. First on the list was Caernarfon Castle, a supremely expensive fortress designed to impose itself on the landscape and signify the power of English rule.

The Eagle Tower

The Eagle Tower

Stepping through the threshold of Caernarfon Castle for the first time you can’t help but be struck by the bold statement of strength infused with grandeur that James of St George, the military architect of his age, conjured up here.

It really is quite unrivalled in Wales and in a select group of the most impressive fortress castles in the UK, though there are no palatial interiors to wow here – only the foundations survive of what must once have been a splendid Great Hall. Although intended to accommodate the great medieval household of the king’s eldest son the castle actually ended up as little more than an arnament and building maintenance depot in the fourteenth century.

The overall look of the castle was intended to tap into the legend of the usurper Roman emperor, Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig), who ruled Gaul, Britain and Spain from 383 until his capture and execution in 388. This might have been the moment he faded from history but instead he turned into a figure of celtic legend in the Mabinogion. The dreams of Macsen include sight of a great castle on the coast, a vision cleverly adopted by Edward I in the construction of a castle with curtain walls with coloured bands that evoke the walls of Roman Constantinople.

On top of the mythological associations, the status of Caernarfon was further cemented upon the birth of the future Edward II at the castle on 25th January 1284 and the subsequent bestowal of the title of Prince of Wales upon him in 1301. Later histories say that Edward I presented his son as a prince ‘borne in Wales and could speake never a word of English’ which seems a little unlikely, though he certainly gave his son the rule and revenue of the Crown’s Welsh territory.

Since 1301 it has become tradition for the eldest son of the reigning monarch to be given the title of Prince of Wales. A display in the Eagle Tower includes the original thrones used in the investiture ceremonies at Caernarfon for the Prince of Wales in 1911 and 1969. In a corner of the ground floor space a TV set plays the footage of Prince Charles at Caernarfon on an endless loop.

A view of the interior of Caernarfon Castle from outside the Eagle Tower

The upper and lower wards from the Eagle Tower

Construction work on the Caernarfon Castle we know today began in the summer of 1283, in the immediate aftermath of Edward’s victory in the second war of Welsh independence (1282-83), but came under attack during a rebellion led by Madog ap Llywelyn in September 1294.

If nothing else, the revolt had illustrated the need for the fortresses in North Wales to secure Edward’s newly conquered territories and this now drove the project forward with an increased sense of insecurity. The heavy damage prompted a redoubling of building works with more elaborate defensive measures, though many of the plans still remained unrealised by the time works effectively finished in 1330.

Caernarfon Castle from across the Seiont

Caernarfon Castle from across the Seiont

It is a pleasure to wander the walls, though the place is something of a labyrinth. At one point I got separated from my travelling companion and when we finally emerged we found ourselves on the same stretch of wall but on different levels. On a number of occasions we found ourselves encountering other families that had tried going in every direction but couldn’t find the route that took them forward on the wall walk. Inevitably, it was easy to find the dead end passageways though! A bit of a head scratcher at times given how simple it seems from ground level.

If you have the energy you can climb up any number of towers on your wall walk, though a couple was quite enough for me. The most impressive of the towers is the triple turreted Eagle Tower, which most probably contained the chambers of Edward I’s lieutenant in North Wales. The name comes from the heavily weathered eagle that can be seen on the western turret, along with a selection of equally weathered helmeted heads.

Caernarfon Castle kept us entertained for around two and a half hours. Besides wandering around the walls there is a dramatic audio-visual presentation on a loop, an exhibition about the players in Edward I’s world and a fascinating museum about the history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (keep an eye out for the displays about the post of Goat Major and the tattered remnants of the much shot through colours that the regiment carried in the Crimean war). I think that is pretty good value for an adult admission fee of £7.95 (a cost covered for us by our English Heritage cards).

There is more to see in Caernarfon, including the town walls and the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways but for us the visit to the castle filled a half day perfectly. We rounded off our day with a lovely taste of Welsh hospitality at the wonderful Bell Tower Cafe (a family run business established in 1958) in Hole in the Wall Street before setting off on our journey to our base at Bangor.

Bangor is not the most obvious place to stay, not being remotely touristy, but it has the benefit of being roughly equidistant between three of Edward’s castles that we had hoped to visit – Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Conwy. All of these are easily reached by bus. Our accommodation, at The Management Centre, within Bangor University is a little quirky but perfect for our needs.

The next stop on our medieval castle trail will be Conwy Castle, although the forecast does not look all that promising. The very real threat of torrential rain and storms has already forced us to drop plans to visit Edward’s unfinished last castle at Beaumaris (with its demonstration of perfect concentric symmetry) but I am determined to see Conwy Castle whatever comes our way…

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