England’s Peak District

This will be a short post, to atone for some of those longer ones.  The Peak District National Park is UK’s first national park, so we were kinda expecting it to have some of England’s more spectacular scenery.  Mountains always cause my blood to quicken, so I’m looking forward to seeing this area.

As it turns out, we end up traveling through the northern part of the Peak District National Somewhere near the top of the Peak DistrictPark multiple times, taking highways going to other places.  Each time we expect to get a glimpse of the park, whetting our appetite for more.   Wishful thinking!  This is England in winter.  The views on our previous trips through this northern region?  A typical example is shown here.  Every time.  Nada.  There may be peaks out there, but they’re shy.

OK, this time we’re going to the Peak District from the south, starting from Sheffield, home of the famous stainless steel.  Some of Sheffield’s impressive buildings are shown

above.  Our first stop is Castleton, which is near the center of the Peak District.  There’s been a village Peveril Castle, from 1086here since 1086 when the Normans built Peveril Castle, shown to the left.  One can still see parts of the town ditch that surrounded the medieval village.  In the 1700’s lead mining was the main industry; impressive caverns related to the mining are nearby, and several miner’s cottages can still be found in the village.  A glimpse of the town is shown below, but we’re off to see better things, the scenery of the Peak District.

As you can see above and below, conditions are not exactly optimal …gee, it’s raining!  How novel!  Some views nonetheless.

Sigh.  We’ll try again another day.

This is another day, and although it is not exactly clear and sunny, it isn’t raining.  The left picture below is looking at the same area as the last picture above – a clear improvement!

Like the pictures above, the two below constitute a panorama.  It is rural splendor, isn’t it?

Below are more pictures from the Peak District.

The Peak District National Park is pretty, in a green and pastoral way, but at least from what we visited, in no way does it compare with the more mountainous Lake District (post England’s Lake District) – and it’s a far cry from something like our Rocky Mountain National Park.  In fact, the highest peak in this park is just 2,000 ft tall.  To be fair, this national park is called “Peak District”, not “Mountain District”, so some of my unmet lofty expectations are due to semantics.  I would suggest a better name is “Big Rounded Hills National Park”, but maybe that would be disrespectful to this glacier-scoured country.  I don’t think they know better.  For movie buffs, I’m reminded of Crocodile Dundee’s “That’s not a knife”.

Next post – one of our favorite cities (our most favorite city?) – Barcelona, Spain.

South Wales II: St. David’s Cathedral

Heading north to St. David's CathedralAlas, it’s raining.  Ugh.  Although we’re here in South Wales to hike some of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, today is definitely not the day!  So we’re off to St. David’s Cathedral, which is located nearby on the most westerly point of Wales.

Time for a little history, of which St. David’s has seen a lot!  It goes back almost 15 centuries.  St. David (patron saint of Wales and one of the earliest identifiable figures of Welsh history) founded a strict monastic community here sometime before his death in 589.  The community survived frequent plunder by Vikings over the next 500 years – a number of bishops were killed – while steadily achieving renown as a religious and intellectual center.  After William the Conqueror subjugated England, he visited St. David’s as a pilgrim in 1081.  In 1123 the Pope decreed that “Two pilgrimages to St. Davids is equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to one to Jerusalem”, making St. David’s one of the most important shrines of medieval Christendom.  A new cathedral was quickly constructed in 1131.  King Henry II visited in Illustration of St. David's Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace in the 1500's1171, leading to an increase in pilgrimage and necessitating a larger cathedral; the present cathedral was begun in 1181 and swiftly completed.  King Edward I conquered Wales (post Northern Wales I: Conwy) and visited St. David’s in 1284.  In 1328 the reigning bishop of St. David’s started work on the impressive Bishop’s Palace, shown in the illustration above.  St. David’s Cathedral was further modified over time, with St. Mary’s College and cloister added in 1365 and the Holy Trinity Chapel in 1509.  An inadequate foundation and the effect of an earthquake in the mid 1200’s caused the walls of the west nave to lean outwards; ultimately the ceiling was replaced with Irish oak, in 1530.  In 1648 during England’s Civil War, Cromwell’s forces all but destroyed the Cathedral and stripped the lead from the Bishop’s Palace roof.  200 years later, in 1862, the Cathedral was restored.

Magnification from the illustration of St. David's complex in the 1500'sEnough history -let’s take a look at this very interesting cathedral!  Its overall appearance is nicely captured in the picture to the left, which is a magnification from the illustration above.  The entrance gate to the compound is in the upper right corner; the wall in the illustration no longer exists, but the massive gate, dating to the 1300’s, remains, as shown below.  After passing through the gate, your way down to the cathedral takes you past a cemetery (conventional wisdom said the closer you were buried to a church, the better your chances for heaven; I suspect the church benefited from that notion).  The picture to the right, below, shows a sprawling Cathedral; the

additions over subsequent centuries are very apparent.  Also in view as we approach the Ruins of the Bishop's Palace, built in 1328Cathedral is the ruined Bishop’s Palace.  It would have been spectacularly beautiful back in its day.  I’ll show you more a bit later.

The left picture below shows Ginger entering the Cathedral from the underwhelming south side entrance, the “Porch”, which leads you to one side of the nave.  It’s today’s entrance, but I rather suspect that the original – or at least intended – entrance was the more impressive west entrance, shown in the right picture below.  I say that not only because the

west entrance is so much more impressive, but because it gives a frontal entry into the nave; and the nave, the oldest surviving part of the cathedral (1100’s), is stunning when viewed from the back, as shown in the left picture below.  It’s built in Transitional Norman style (ie, they experimented with some pointed arches).  Originally the nave had no seats.

The pulpitum, the stone screen shown at the back of the nave, separates the chancel (domain of the clergy) from the common people and is from the 1300’s.  A detail of that screen is shown in the right picture; it’s also gorgeous.  This nave is so very different from your usual Norman cathedral (for an example, see post Durham and its Norman Cathedral).  It is also spectacularly beautiful (in the nave picture above, ignore the raindrop on my lens, smudging the organ).  The impressive Norman arches marching down the nave are each carved in a different pattern.  However, what really gets the WOW! effect is that surprising ceiling.  Yeah, maybe it doesn’t quite fit – the oak ceiling is from the 1500’s and is anything but Norman; it’s in 3D, ornately carved, maybe even frilly – yet it’s still stunning.  Somehow the combination works, perhaps because the arches in the ceiling mimic the stone arches.  Details of the ceiling are shown below.

Original survey of St. David's cathedral church in 1715The layout of the Cathedral, shown here, is from a survey of the main part of the Cathedral in 1715; missing from the survey is the cloister and associated buildings.  Beyond the nave the survey shows a number of rooms and chapels that were added later (as mentioned earlier).

We’re off to see these additions.  Each is beautiful, and, surprisingly, each of them has a radically different floor and ceiling design!  Below are some of the different floor patterns

with their ancient tiles; some floors are intact and complete, others are made with restored pieces.

Leaving the nave, we enter the choir.  The pictures below look back through the pulpitum into the nave.  The murals are remnants of an earlier screen from the 1100’s.

Now the choir!  It was built from the late 1400’s into the 1500’s.  It’s a very open structure, as shown below, with some very nice wood carving (we’ll come back to that 3rd picture

later).  The nicely carved misericords (“mercy seats”, discussed in the post The Lincoln Cathedral) are from the 1500’s; a few examples are shown below.  At the edge of the choir is the carved Bishop’s Throne, where the Bishop sits when officiating special ceremonies.

OK, now we’re going to look up, into the Cathedral’s tower.  Wow.  It’s gorgeous.  The

back end of the choir looks into the high altar, as shown previously in the pictures of the choir (3rd picture).  The high alter is really impressive!

The mosaics behind the alter are exquisite.

The stained glass windows are beautiful.

And then there’s that incredible ceiling.  This area is soooooo impressive!

There are a few more chapels to show.  The pictures below show the south aisle and, at its end, the Chapel of St. Edward.  That roof is only from the early 1900’s; the original had

fallen into disrepair after Cromwall’s troops had stripped its lead in 1648.  Behind the High Altar is the Holy Trinity Chapel with fabulous fan vaulting, shown in the left image

above; the right picture shows the very interesting ceiling of St. Andrew’s Chapel that you glimpsed earlier from the choir.  The Chapel of St. Thomas BecketThere are two more chapels.  The Chapel of St. Thomas Becket, shown here, was built in the early 1200’s but remodeled in the 1300’s (the ceiling is from the 1300’s).  In the layout schematic of 1715 shown earlier, this room is called “The Chapter House”.

The remaining chapel, St. Mary’s, is shown below. It was originally constructed in the late 1200’s, modified in the 1300’s, and a vaulted roof added in the 1500’s.  Cromwell stripped away the lead roof in the 1600’s, leading to the collapse of the vaulted ceiling in the 1700’s.  It was restored in the 1900’s.  In spite of its travails, the chapel’s many medieval features have been preserved.

I’ll finish the Cathedral with the cloister, mostly for completeness; it’s not very exciting.

Just beyond the Cathedral are the impressive ruins of the Bishop’s Palace.  It must have been quite beautiful.

Alas, the weather does not change from rain and strong winds, and there is no respite in sight.  So our desire to hike the Coastal Path of Wales will be unrequited.  Too bad!  We think it would have been fabulous.  Next lifetime?

Bridge across the River SevernThis last picture is us leaving Wales across the very beautiful bridge that connects to England.  It’s still raining.

Next post – England’s Peak District.

 

 

South Wales I: Pembrokeshire and the Coastal Path

Well, the plan was to visit South Wales, see the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, and hike some of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path.  The Coastal Path is mostly at cliff-top level and goes for 186 miles, with a total of 35,000 feet of ascent and descent; so maybe we won’t do all of it!  In 2012 the travel guide Lonely Planet rated the coast of Wales No. 1 in its “Best in Travel: top 10 regions”; pictures of the Coastal Path from the Pembrokeshire web site are shown below; oh yeah!  We have high expectations.

Below are pictures of Welsh countryside as we enter the region – pastoral splendor!  It’s

 

Road sign in South Wales, maybe for those pesky tourists clear that farming is a big deal here.  It’s also clear that the Welsh have a very dry sense of humor – that or they’re incredibly anal, as suggested by this sign at the edge of the road.

We decided to splurge and stay in a real castle; how cool is that!  The Roch Castle was built by a Norman knight in the 1100’s as an outer defense of “Little England”, an English-speaking and English-culture region within Wales near Pembrokeshire.  As shown below, it’s a real castle in all respects but remodeled to be very comfortable on the inside.  We loved it!

The views from the castle ramparts are impressive.  Long-term readers of this blog (should there still be some!) will know that I am enamored by how changes in sunlight and clouds affect the colors and moods in which we see the world.  In a small way that effect is shown below – pictures of the same general areas, taken from the castle ramparts, a half-hour apart.  Set 1 is here, before sunset:

Then, in the glow of sunset:

Small but beautiful changes!  Not bad views, with a glass of wine in hand.  In a  castle.

The castle’s breakfast menu is shown in the first picture below.  Yum!  Laverbread, by the way, is a Welsh national delicacy made from a particular seaweed, coated with oatmeal and fried; it’s healthy and really good.  That evening we had dinner at the castle’s

associated restaurant, a complimentary taxi ride away to the nearby town using Wales’ two-way one-lane roads.  Don’t drink and drive!  Our meals are shown above; the Welsh eat pretty well!

We’re off to Porthgain, a small city within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path.  It would be nice to do a hike along the coast, but it’s

raining and windy and pretty awful.  Maybe it’ll clear?

Porthgain was a prosperous industrial harbor in 1850, when it exported slate from its own quarries and several others.  It had a water-powered mill that sawed the quarried slate slabs before shipment.  In later years it turned to brickmaking, and later yet to crushed

roadstone, until in the 1930’s it could no longer compete in the modern world.  Today the harbor is dominated by the ancient large brick hoppers that were used to store the crushed roadstone.  In that last picture above, the large opening there at the left is a tram tunnel.  When the quarry got too deep and it was difficult to extract the slate and waste, this underground tunnel was built to deliver it to the harbor.  Doing all that tunnel digging by hand – through rock – boggles my mind.

The harbor is still home to local fishermen.  We stop at The Shed, a small bistro on the harbor, where we have a simple but quite impressive late lunch.

We decide to walk along the harbor past the ancient hoppers; it’s getting late and it’s still overcast and gloomy, but the rain is at most a thin mist.  The wind, however, is strong and

gusty, and that’s a problem.  A cliff-edge walk in strong winds, with a pounding sea below, is maybe not a great idea.  Indeed, a number of locals have warned us not to be on the Coastal Path in windy conditions.  Still, we’ve come all this way, and just past the hoppers there’s an access path going up the ridge to a gate marking the Coastal Path.  How can we not do that?  Against Ginger’s better judgement, we take a quick hike up the ridge so we can at least see this Coastal Path.  The track up is muddy and slick, and Ginger decides to stay put at the top; I want to explore a little further – I’ll be careful, and be back soon.  Ginger asks for the car keys, just in case ….

One striking observation is the number of abandoned stone houses along the path.  They are each pretty isolated, and obviously old.  Although Bronze and Iron Age settlements and

Norman castles can be found along the Coastal Path, I suspect that most of the abandoned houses I’m seeing are from the more recent slate mining period.  But doesn’t that building in the middle picture look a bit like a castle?  Alas, no time to stop and poke around.

The coastal scenery is twilight-gloomy but very impressive, as shown below.  Those white pillars on the headlands are called “The Beacons” and were built to guide ships into the

narrow entrance of the harbor.  That abandoned building/farm that we saw earlier in that previous set of pictures is also shown in the last picture above.  It looks interesting and I’m drawn to it, in spite of the fear of going on.  No, I’m not fearful of dying by being blown off the cliff; I’m afraid Ginger is gonna kill me for taking too long.

The abandoned building/farm is shown below.  It’s pretty big!  Nearby is a small

abandoned quarry.

Well, it is time to trot back to the waiting Ginger.  Yep, in good weather this Coastal Path would be outstanding.  As I head back, I see a lighthouse that has come online (shown below).  Finally there’s the path down to Porthgain; hopefully Ginger is patiently waiting below, but she did take the car keys ….

Next post: if it’s raining, we’ll visit St. David’s Cathedral.

 

The Cotswolds: Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water, and Broadway

The Cotswolds consists of a number of small towns, each uniquely charming and Hobbit-like cute.  We had visited the area many decades ago during our first foray into England.  This time we’re actually traveling to South Wales, but the Cotswolds are in the way.  Darn!  Guess we’ll have to stop at the fringes (where we haven’t visited) and look around.  That’s the nice part about traveling as we do: planning is optional, adventure happens!

First, some perspective.  During the Middle Ages, thanks to a breed of sheep known as the Cotswold Lion, the Cotswolds became prosperous from the wool trade with Europe.  A saying from the 1100’s – “In Europe, the best wool is English.  In England, the best wool is Cotswold.”  Wool money built fine houses and towns from locally quarried, golden-colored Cotswold limestone.  Then the cotton gin was invented, the wool industry collapsed, and the Cotswolds’ economy tanked.  There was no money to upgrade the houses, locking them into wonderful time-passed charm in pristine English countryside.

STOW-ON-THE-WOLD

We’ll start with Stow-on-the-Wold, population about 2,000.  The name means “meeting place on the uplands”.  Stow is situated on a high (800 foot) hill, the highest point in the Cotswolds.  It was the site of an Iron Age fort and later a Roman garrison town.  Seven major roads cross here, one of them being the famous Roman Fosse Way that went pretty much the length of England (see post “The City of Lincoln“).  The current town was founded by Norman lords wanting to take advantage of trade on the converging roads.  In 1107 it hosted an international fair for its wool, but the town struggled financially; trade with those passing through was unpredictable.  To remedy this problem, in 1330 King Edward II set up an annual 7-day market in Stow’s town square (shown below), which

Edward IV replaced with two 5-day fairs in 1476.  Stow became established as a major place to trade, and as the huge annual fairs grew in fame and importance, the town grew more prosperous.  At one 19th century fair 20,000 sheep changed hands.  As the wool trade declined, people began to trade in horses, a practice that continues today.  Here’s a ditty about Stow (and its exposed spot on the hilltop):

“Stowe-on-the-Wold, Where the wind blows cold. Where horses young and old are sold, Where farmers come to spend their gold. Where men are fools and women are bold and many a wicked tale is told. High on the freezing Cotswold.”

The large market square shown earlier attests to this town’s former importance.  That cross in the square, shown above and below, is more than 500 years old; it’s a market cross, used throughout England to designate the monarch-bestowed right to hold a regular fair – and to remind the Christian merchants to “trade fairly under the sight of God”.  At

the other end of the market square is an original town stock where public ridicule was used as punishment.  The surrounding shops and inns are all built of local Cotswold stone.  Although this market square goes back many centuries, it’s still the focus of town life.  We love that physical connection with the distant past, so typical of Europe.

Our lodging in StowLike so much of the Cotswolds, the town buildings have a lot of character.  We’re staying at this lovely hotel that’s loaded with old English charm.  It faces the town square and was built in the 1700’s for a local family, but for most of the 1800’s it was the rectory of the nearby St. Edward’s church.  We’re here at Christmas time, which adds to the charm of the place, but in the pictures of the buildings below you should imagine how beautiful they would be with the vines and greenery in bloom.

Nearby is St. Edward’s church, shown below, built in Norman times (the 1000’s).  It exhibits a mixture of architectural styles due to additions and renovations lasting into the 1400’s – the tower was added in 1447.  I love that entrance to the church in the lower

right picture, closely guarded by those venerable yew trees!  Don’t you expect Hobbits to come skipping out?  Many think this door was the inspiration for Tolkien’s door into Moria (the west entrance to the great dwarf city).  The door to St. Edwards church is shown again, below, along with illustrations for the movie.

The windows in this church are impressive.  Most of them date from the 1300’s and 1400’s, but there are also some from the 1800’s.  Alas, I don’t know which is what –

the pictures above look too good for medieval, but it’s possible.  The last window is clearly from the 1800’s.  On a more recent historical note, the funeral of the Who’s bass player, John Entwistle, took place at this church in 2002.

We decided to stay longer in Stow, but had to move to new lodgings (that’s the occasional downside to traveling without plans).  We chose the Porch House, which dates back to the middle 900’s!  It’s very interesting and quirky – eg, the door to our room opened to steps going down(!).  Don’t come home tipsy!  The sink was in the bedroom (it wouldn’t fit in the bathroom).  Old wood beams were everywhere.  Pictures shown below.

BOURTON-ON-THE-WATER

Don’t you love the way the English name their towns?  How about San-Francisco-on-the-Bay?  Detroit-on-the-Ropes?  Ohhhh, I’m bad.

Bourton-on-the-Water is called “the Venice of the Cotswolds” due to its petite canals and low bridges.  It often has more visitors than residents during peak tourist season, but Tea, crumpets and clotted cream - yum!luckily Christmas is not that season.  The buildings of the city are not the oldest in the Cotswolds, mostly dating from just the 1600’s.  We’ll start with a tea room break – one of England’s wonderful customs, tea and crumpets with clotted cream.  It is sooooooo good!

So let’s see some of this “Venice clone”.   As you can see below, it’s far from being Venice!  Still, it’s an attractive place.

The town itself has quite a few typical Cotswolds-gorgeous houses.

BROADWAY

Broadway, population 2,500, takes its name from its wide grass-fringed main street.  It’s unusually wide (for England!) because two small streams used to run on each side of Broadway and its main street (from the internet)the original dirt road, and people built their houses behind the streams (now the streams run underground in pipes).  The road is lined with red chestnut trees and honey-colored Cotswold limestone buildings and is referred to as the “Jewel of the Cotswolds”.  We don’t take such hype seriously – remember “Venice of the Cotswolds”?  In this case, however, the hype might be right.  We think the city is gorgeous, primarily due to the incredible old Arts & crafts shop, Broadwayvines that cling to the cute houses.  This is Christmas time, with little blooming; we can only imagine how beautiful this city would be in spring!

First a little history before showing off the pretty houses.  Broadway was a thriving village in the 1000’s.  It prospered in the wool trade and by the 1600’s had became a busy stagecoach stop.  However, the introduction of the railroad eliminated stagecoach travel and Broadway became a backwater – but also a haven of peace and tranquillity that was attractive to artists and writers during the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 1800’s.  Broadway became home to quite a number of luminaries, among them Edward Elgar, John Singer Sargent, Vaughan Williams, J. M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) and William Morris (leader in the Arts & Crafts movement).  Today Broadway is still a center for arts and antiques.

So off to the pretty houses!  Like Bourton-on-the-Water, a lot of them are from the 1600’s, including the historic Lygon Arms Hotel shown below.  In 1651 Oliver Cromwell spent the

night here, the next day defeating the invading King Charles I of Scotland (post Stirling Castle) at the Battle of Worcester.  King Charles had used the building earlier to rally his royalist supporters.  The hotel is spectacular, inside and out.

The houses below are adorned with serious vines that add considerable charm.

There are lots of houses with charm of their own.

Some close-ups.  Isn’t it a cute town?

This is England, so of course there are hedges everywhere in every shape.

Finally, we visited St. Michael & All Angels church.  Built in 1840, it’s relatively new.  We decided to visit it because the original 12th century Broadway parish church that we really

wanted to see (St. Eadburgha) is a 35 minute walk away (before Broadway became a major stagecoach stop, the center of Broadway stood in a different place).  The church does have some nice stained glass windows.

Henry James stayed in this town, and remarked “Broadway and much of the land about are in short the perfection of the old English rural tradition”.  So I’ll end with a picture of a Broadway street going into the surrounding countryside, and a quick picture of that countryside.

The Cotswolds are indeed a pretty place, dotted with quaint towns surrounded by green rolling hills that are populated with happy munching sheep.  Hope you enjoyed seeing the few towns that we visited.

Next post:  South Wales, and St. David’s Cathedral

 

Northern Wales III: Beaumaris

Beaumaris is on a big island, the Isle of Anglesey, and like Conwy it was a castle town, an English enclave surrounded by Welsh guerrillas.  Begun in 1295 in response to a revolt a year earlier, it was the last link in King Edward’s “Iron Chain” of castles enclosing Gwynedd, the former kingdom of North Wales.  Beaumaris Castle is a high point of medieval Beaumaris Castle (photo of a picture)castle design.  Built on flat marshy ground with no natural defenses, the castle incorporates concentric rings of fortifications – a double ring of walls surrounded by a moat.  The innermost wall is higher than the outer, providing greatly increased firepower.  A fortified dock was built to give sea access, allowing the castle to withstand sieges (as shown in the picture, the sea is more distant now).  However, problems in Scotland shifted the king’s priorities, and the castle was never finished.  An artist’s concept Artist concept of the completed Beaumaris Castleof what the castle would have looked like, had it been finished, is shown to the left.  The picture shows a much more imposing structure that would have been twice the height of the squat one we see today.  The inner walls look particularly impenetrable.  The south gate seen at the lower right faced the sea and was the main castle entrance as well as the dock.  A magnification of this artist’s rendition is shown below, along with a picture of the way it looks now.  The red arrows point to the dock’s

door to the castle.  Rather than using a harbor, this man-made dock used a wide shipping channel (now covered over) to deliver supplies.  Ships up to 40 tons could sail in at high tide and unload goods through the castle wall doorway.  The dock would be defended from the Gunner’s Walk, which can be seen to the right of the arrow in the left picture above, as well as at the top of the castle schematic Schematic of the Beaumaris Castleshown here.  Beneath the Gunner’s Walk was a corn mill for self-sufficiency, the mill turned by differences in water level between the moat and the sea.  Whereas the water in the dock was supplied by the sea, the water in the moat was supplied by a freshwater stream; the level between the two was regulated by a sluice gate in the Gunner’s Walk.  How clever!  The town wall started from here, but wasn’t finished until 1414.

The main entrance to the castle, shown in the paired pictures above, is to the left of the dock and was very well protected.  First there was the moat, then a drawbridge, then the outer gate.  If you got through that, there were the multiple defenses of the inner gate, with every stage having high- and low-level arrow loops.  The inner-wall gatehouse was defended by a barbican, then by three successive pairs of barred gates and portcullises.  Further, the outer wall south gate was off-set from the inner gatehouse, so attackers moving between gates would be exposed from more sides to archers waiting above.

Pictures of the outer walls, which form a rough octagon, are shown below.  The walls had 15 towers, and with arrow loops at two or three levels there were over 300 shooting

positions for the archers inside.  And of course the taller inner walls provided yet more firepower.

From the schematic of the castle shown above, you can see there isn’t a lot of space between the inner and outer walls – it’s function was to be a killing space.  As shown in the pictures below, the inner walls look forbidding, but imagine them being twice that height

had the castle been finished.   The inner walls are 16 feet thick, with inner passageways – and plenty of latrines!  The inner walls sometimes have 3 levels of latrines, examples shown below.

OK, let’s enter the inner ward!  Beaumaris would have been the largest of King Edward’s

castles, and the intended accommodation within the inner ward, shown in the first picture below, was planned on a lavish scale.  It would have had first-floor stables, kitchens, great hall and private chambers.  Both gatehouses were planned to have grand arrangements of state rooms for the king and his family, an example shown in the second picture below.

The last picture above shows the unfinished north gate dominating the courtyard.

The castle also has a chapel; it’s in one of the inner wall middle towers (called the chapel tower, of course), and is accessible either from the inner ward or from the inner wall passageway.

We’ll close with beautiful views from the castle across the Menai Straight to the

Snowdonia Mountains beyond.

Next post – Stow-on-the-Wold, and more, in the Cotswolds.

 

 

 

Northern Wales II: Caernarfon

Oh, there is history here!  The Romans built the first fort nearby, from which Caernarfon derives its name; in Welsh, the place was called “y gaer yn Arfon”, meaning “the stronghold in the land over against Môn”.  Following the Norman conquest of England, William the Conqueror turned his attention to Wales.  When the person nominally in charge of (northern) Wales was killed by the Welsh (1088), Norman control was re-established by building 3 castles, one of them here at Caernarfon.  It would have been a motte and bailey castle – the easy-to-build but militarily formidable fort of the time, with a protective ditch and a timber palisade enclosing a courtyard (bailey) and wooden keep on a raised earthwork (motte), similar to that shown at Lincoln Castle (post “The Lincoln Castle, Bishop’s Palace, and the Magna Carta“).  The Welsh recaptured the area in 1115, and this original Caernarfon castle became the property of the Welsh princes – until war broke out between Wales and England in 1282.  England’s King Edward I invaded and marched through northern Wales, capturing Welsh castles and starting his own at Conwy.  Several months later in 1283 the last Welsh castle fell, and Edward began building a new castle at Caernarfon, replacing the pre-existing motte and bailey structure.  The castle was intended to be the definitive chapter in King Edward’s conquest of Wales, constructed not only as a military stronghold but also as a seat of government and royal palace.  The defenses were built on a grand scale with a deliberate link to Caernarfon’s Roman past, the striped and angular walls designed to echo those of Constantinople, the imperial power of Rome.  The pictures below are from the internet.

Part of the castle’s fame comes from its association with the English title, “Prince of Wales”.  According to legend, Edward got the angry Welsh to submit to the Crown by promising them he would name “a prince, born in Wales, who spoke not a word of English”.  To the surprise of the Welsh, his son Edward II was born at Caernarfon in 1284 (speaking not a word of English – or any other language), and was created Prince of Wales in 1301 with control over Wales and its incomes.  Since then the title has traditionally been held by the eldest son of the monarch.  Prince Charles was “invested” with the title in Caernarfon Castle in 1969.

A schematic of today's Caernarfon CastleA schematic of Caernarfon Castle is shown here.  As you can see, it’s all walls and towers; construction was stopped in 1330 before it was completed.  Although there were once interior buildings, none have survived.

The main entrance to the castle, shown in the left picture below, is the town-facing King’s Gate; the right picture is a drawing of the unfinished

rear of the King’s Gate.  Had this twin-towered gatehouse been finished, it would have been protected by two drawbridge, 5 sets of doors, 6 portcullises, many murder holes above, and arrow loops to the side.  You can see from that drawing above that there was a chapel above the gatehouse passage.  It had double sinks for holy water, and slots in the floor to allow raising of the portcullises.  The whole second floor was intended to be a large hall; the windows and remains of finely sculpted heads finishing off the roof supports show that it was designed for stylish living.

Closer views of the castle walls are shown below.

High-tech arrow loop with slanted slitsArrow loops are everywhere in the walls, creating a veritable medieval machine gun.  These arrow loops were high-tech for their time: not only were they angled to allow each archer to cover a wide area, they also had an angled central pillar in the center of each loop to provide extra protection.

The impressive walls of the town and castle survive largely intact, but all that remains of the buildings within the castle are the foundations.  In part that’s because the buildings within the castle were never completed; money for construction was diverted to repair town walls damaged in the Welsh revolt of 1294; more money was diverted for Edward’s invasion of Scotland (post, Stirling Castle); and Edward died in 1307.  Further, when the Tudor’s (of Welsh origin) ascended the English throne in 1485, the Welsh were treated better.  Hostilities eased, castles became less important, and consequently they were neglected.  By 1620 only the Eagle Tower (shown later) and King’s Gate had roofs, and the domestic buildings had been stripped for building material.  Still, the interior is impressive!  The two pictures below look toward the unfinished Queens Gate.  In the first

picture, the large bare rectangle on the right is where the Great Hall once stood.  In its heyday the Great Hall would have been impressive, featuring fine architecture.  On the other side of the courtyard, the three joined brown rectangles are the foundations of the kitchen.  During the castle building, these kitchens would have fed up to 600 people.  A

large part of the diet was boiled meat (doesn’t that sound English?); the kitchen had fitted cauldrons and running water supplied by pipes from the Well Tower, as indicated above by the illustration and the picture of the ruins. There was also a waste disposal chute that went through the castle wall.

Inside Caernarfon Castle, looking at the Queen's GateReturning to the Caernarfon Castle overview, re-shown here, the jutting structure behind the kitchen site is the unfinished rear of the King’s Gate, and across from that the Chamberlain Tower, with the North-East Tower, Watch Tower and Queen’s Gate in the background.  The pictures below look in the opposite direction toward the huge three-

turreted Eagle Tower.  In the first picture, the leftmost tower is the Watch Tower, then the Chamberlain Tower and the Eagle Tower.  Note at the left edge of the right picture above, and in this The Granary Tower on the right, the North-East Tower on the left; note the notched walls that were unfinishedpicture of the Granary and North-East Towers, that there are notched walls ready for an expansion that never came.

Although the castle was never finished and never really used, King Edward (and other officials and overseers) did visit and were housed in completed royal lodgings on the upper floors.  When Edward and wife Eleanor visited in 1284 to have their son, the Eagle Tower was likely completed (up to the 2nd floor) and had the grandest

apartments.  Had Caernarfon been completed as intended, it could have contained a royal household of several hundred people.

City and castle walls are shown below.

When we were there, Caernarfon had a street fair.  Nice!  Among the highlights were a really cool (and momentarily convincing!) velociraptor moving through the crowd, and a

very cute calf.  Awwww!  Can I take him home??  And how about dining on super-fresh street seafood at the harbor under the shadow of a castle?  Crab anyone?  This kind of

experience is why we tolerate some of the discomforts of traveling.  Are you jealous, stay-at-home readers?  I’ll finish with pictures of the Caernarfon harbor.

 

Next post – Northern Wales III: Beaumaris

Northern Wales I: Conwy

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 isCastle walls from the side 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 Representation of the chapel and dining hall in the 1280'sand 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.

Spiral fractures; be careful in castles!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!