Longshanks Welsh Castle Trail
Edward I’s conquest of Wales was of course brutal and violent. But the building he undertook to hold his new territory left a legacy of medieval castles second to none in Europe. In North Wales a tour along the coast and at times venturing a little inland offers an itinerary that takes in some of the most spectacular of his fortresses (including the greatest of them all at Beaumaris), and happily also takes us through some wonderful scenery both coastal and inland.
Like Edward himself we should start at Flint , where in 1277 the invading English monarch established his first new castle on Welsh land. In keeping with its status as the first of its kind Flint was also built to a unique design as far as British castles are concerned, a square with towers at three corners and a separate keep. In ruins since the Parliamentary forces slighted it in the Civil War , Flint is still a romantic site, gazing out across the Dee that once ensured its supplies, and across the estuary to the Wirral Peninsula , its walls looking almost as if they are gradually melting.
Continue westward along the A548 coast road, or for swifter transit the A55, to reach Rhuddlan Castle only another 10 or 12 miles away, the second in Edward’s programme of building, like Flint begun in 1277. The remains of this mighty monument remain daunting, built to a diamond floor-plan with some of the curved towers and its walls at times nine feet thick having lost none of their power to impress. The troops here could be provisioned via the Clwyd below the mound on which it stands. And it is interesting to note how few soldiers these castles needed to keep the enemy at bay – as few as 30 or 40 in some cases. Sadly like Flint Rhuddlan, of huge significance to Wales because of the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan that changed Welsh governance and laws, suffered the same fate at the hands of Cromwell ’s army.
Another half-hour westward and we reach Conwy , which still has portions of the fortified town wall – Edward as Duke of Gascony had embraced the idea of bastide towns living in symbiosis with the castles he built, the idea still to be seen in Conwy; indeed one building within the walls gives a further reminder of those times, the 14th century Aberconwy , a fine house now managed by the National Trust . The fortress here escaped the ruination of the Civil War, and remains beautifully preserved. Of course we should look beyond the castles – Conwy is a lovely seaside spot, and its highlights include the smallest house in Britain and Telford’s 1826 suspension bridge .
Next in the chain is the greatest, the finest of the designs created by James of St George, Edward’s great military architect whose work also included Conwy and Caernarfon. Work began on Beaumaris castle in 1295, the grandeur of the concentric design reflecting the grandeur of Edward’s aim, to control the whole of Anglesey from the place, and perhaps with an eye still further west to Ireland. At the end of Beaumaris’s rather homely High Street, with the lovely old pier a short stroll away, the castle now has an almost domestic air from outside, its shallow moat full of wriggling eels. Once inside, however, and the ambition of its builders is easily seen.
Beaumaris wasn't the last of Edward’s castles, but the penultimate in our tour. The last is Caernarfon , the opposite side of the Menai Strait to Beaumaris and at the southern end while its brother fortress guards the north. The very name Caernarfon means fort on the shore, pre-dating Edward’s castle – the Romans had a fort here a millennium previously, relics of their time to be seen in the local museum . It is perhaps the best preserved of all Edward’s castles, and the most beautiful building with its elegant polygonal towers foreshadowing some buildings in Renaissance France. Edward I chose Caernarfon as the birthplace of his son, the first English Prince of Wales, and it was here in 1969 that Prince Charles was invested as the current holder of that title. It is worth planning your visit to take in the view of the castle at night, when it is illuminated, as well as going round it during the day.
If one attacked the trip like Japanese tourists in the Louvre, not stopping for anything other than the Mona Lisa or in this case the fortresses, it could be done with an early start within the day. That would be foolish and exhausting, however, and miss out on all the side elements – the beaches, the pretty coastal stops like Llandudno and Rhos , Colwyn Bay and Rhyl , where logistically it would make sense to set up your base for the break. Alternatively it would be enjoyable to have two or even three different places to stay, one near Flint, one around the Colwyn Bay area, and then either Anglesey or Caernarfon.
Don’t miss out on the Welsh seafood – cockles and mussels especially, and for the brave though it is more a South Wales thing, laver bread . Breakfasts in particular are not to be rushed here.
We hope you will find suitable accommodation in our pages, there is certainly plenty on offer along the North Wales Coast: ancient and modern buildings, posh hotels and isolated cottages , and everything in between too.
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