Wales is a crescent-shaped peninsula jutting out from the England’s west side; it is relatively small, 170 x 60 miles. Like Scotland, it’s part of the U.K. but not part of England, thank-you-very-much. Their distinctiveness is evident in the pervasive presence of the Welsh language, which many speak, proudly. Welsh is definitely not a dialect of English; its words look like an unpronounceable random assembly of letters, and it sounds like Elvish from Lord of the Rings. It’s one of Europe’s oldest languages, written down around 600 A.D. and spoken 300 years before the existence of French or German. All commendable, but let me give you an example of its challenges, like the name of this town a mile away from where we were staying. As shown in the left picture below, the town’s name is “Llanfairpwllgwyngyll”. Go ahead, pronounce it. You see what I mean. And
actually, that’s a compromise for the road signage. The town’s real name is shown on the railroad station terminal, shown on the right picture – “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch”. In Welsh, it means “St. Mary’s Church by the white hazel pool near the fierce whirlpool with the church of St Tysilio by the red cave”. You couldn’t pronounce the short version so don’t even try the full name! The good news is that everyone in Wales speaks English.
A little history of Wales is needed to add context to what you’ll see. Wales, like England, was conquered by the Romans. When the Roman empire fell, the Germanic Saxon tribes conquered England but could not overcome the wild warriors of Wales. The various medieval kingdoms of Wales were unified in 1216, but the country was independent for just over 60 years – in 1282 England’s King Edward I invaded and soon conquered the country. To maintain control in the troublesome North Wales, he built 17 castles that were masterpieces of medieval engineering, with many having sea access to negate any siege. Most castles were built simultaneously with a walled town that was then filled with English settlers – English islands in the midst of angry Wales. Except for a rebellion that started in 1400 and lasted for several years (Conwy Castle was itself captured and held by the Welsh for 3 months), Wales has remained under English domination – a domination that at least in the first few hundred years was harsh and punitive. Today Wales, like Scotland, enjoys some measure of self-rule within the UK; it was granted its own parliament in 1999. The Brexit vote puts a new spin on Wales’ future, possibly giving it independence again after 700 years.
North Wales is more scenic than the south, with more mountains and less population, but
for us its allure is its high concentration of castles, some of the best in England. We’ll do three of them, starting with Conwy. Nearby is also Mt. Snowdon (not shown), taller than any mountain in England (it’s a whopping 3,560 feet; should be fun to climb!).
Before we go to Conwy, let me show you the Menai Suspension Bridge that we have to cross every day. Built in 1826, it had to be a suspension bridge to allow passage of the tall-masted sailing ships of that time – particularly the Royal Navy. It’s 100 feet above
sea level at high tide, and at 580 feet long it was the longest bridge of its day. It was an engineering marvel, and is still used today for local traffic. The hardware, particularly the huge Lego-like chain cables, are massive! The view from the bridge isn’t bad either.
When King Edward I invaded and captured Northern Wales in early 1283, he built Conwy and its castle as a garrison town. The area was a crossing point over the River Conwy between coastal and inland North Wales and was the site of a century-old Cistercian monastery (Aberconwy Abbey) favored by the Welsh princes. As a powerful symbol of English power, he chose that site to build his English castle and walled town, uprooting the Welsh abbey. It took only 4 years to build the castle and city walls.
Although the town itself is ordinary, it does have a good sense of humor, as shown in the store-front picture below. It also has the best medieval walls in Britain, and a hulking,
still-awesome castle. A representation of the (impressive!) city in 1287 is shown in the right picture.
So let’s see this castle! The left picture below shows an entrance to Conwy through the city walls – the picture was taken from the left-most entrance to the city shown above in the representation of 1287. The picture of the city street shows the problem of incorporating
a medieval city (with walls!) into the automobile age; you have to squeeze through that gate, and as you might surmise, yes, it’s a one-way road (actually, this is an exit from Conwy). The right picture is a shot over the city wall showing the impressive castle in the background. Doesn’t it look like an Eskimo art sculpture of a castle? Solid; earthbound; compact. And in this case, impenetrable.
Below are representations of the castle in 1287, and what it looks like today. The entrance today is steep, but not like it was! Then, as shown in the left picture below, you first
walked up a steep ramp that no horse could climb, then crossed a drawbridge, passed under a portcullis, stepped through 2 sets of doors (all protected with murder holes and arrow loops), and then entered the killing ground of the barbican. The upper right picture is a good overview of the castle. Notice that it’s divided into two sections, a front and a back. The front was the working part of the castle; the back had the royal apartments. The castle was at the cutting edge of military technology, with thick walls, rounded towers and turrets providing lethal fields of fire, a solid rock base, and royal apartments that could be defended separately. Well supplied with fresh water from a spring-fed well, 91 feet down, and with its own dock, it could withstand sieges indefinitely. Nothing on this scale had been seen before in Wales, which at that time had no real cities. The last picture above and the picture to the left show how intimidating it still is.
The pictures below show the working part of the castle, viewed from the ground and from
the castle wall. That doorway in the middle of the upper right picture went to the chapel and the Great Hall dining area, shown in the lower right picture. A representation of how the chapel and dining hall looked in the 1280’s is shown here on the left. People ate here regardless of rank; status was indicated by distance from the top table (and the further away, the plainer the food).
Below is a look at the living quarters, in this case the multiple apartments in the turrets and towers. The floors are long gone, but you can see that each apartment had a window
and a big fireplace – and would have been quite cozy, if a bit compact.
Now to the royal apartments. People of power protected their privacy, even in a castle. As shown in the first representation below, entry to the royal apartments was barred by a
gatehouse, including a drawbridge! Access from the castle walls was blocked by two doors, shown in the adjacent magnified image. The royal apartments themselves are quite
spacious; in the 1280’s they would have been opulent and luxurious. Today they’re one of the best unaltered medieval royal apartments in the UK. Pictures of one of the apartments
are shown above.
I’ll finish this post by sharing a little Conwy history, and then some views of this pretty area. The town buildings are not medieval, but the streets do have some history. The street just outside the city walls is “Town Ditch Road”, named for the dry moat that was the first line of defense for the city. The street running along the harbor by the castle is still “King’s Quay”. Within the city walls there is a street that has a changed name; “Berry Street” was renamed from “Burial Street” – it had been a big ditch for mass burials during the plague in the 1600’s. Shifting gears from that gruesome note, below are pretty views of the Conwy area from the castle walls.
Not all went well on this trip to Conwy; descending a castle stairwell, perhaps foolishly in sandals, I slipped on a wet step and fell backward. I protected my camera, but alas, not my hand, as shown in the x-ray. I apparently sat on the hand, and the buns of steel did the rest; two fingers with spiral fractures. Broken fingers are bad enough, but worse, that’s the end of the plan to climb Mt. Snowdon. What a disaster! So back we go to poor Britt in Lincoln.
I underestimated how delicate one’s fingers are; a year later I still need to do hand exercises. Nevertheless, it’s only a wee blip in our adventures, and after a few months of healing we will return to this pretty area of Wales!
Next post – Caernarfon Castle!