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Wales’ top four formidable fortresses

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Do you have fond memories of exploring ancient castles? Can you remember climbing impossibly steep spiral staircases? Did you marvel at how the solid stone steps had been worn down by the passage of feet throughout the centuries? Did you peer out through slits in the thick walls at the view the archers would have had of attackers? Then what did you think of the views from the top of the battlements? If you have visited one of the four castles in this post, your reward for reaching the top would have been views over the fortified town and splendid views over the sea or up into the majestic mountains of Snowdonia.

Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon Castle. Photo by author

According to UNESCO “the castles and fortified towns of Gwynedd are the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe”. So why are these castles here? Well, Edward I invaded Wales in 1282 and defeated the Welsh princes, then projected his power into the area by building a series of fortified towns protected by castles.

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle.Photo ©VisitBritain / Britain on View

The castles of Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech and Beaumaris were constructed between 1283 and 1331. In a mere 20 years, 10 new castles were built and even more Welsh strongholds were taken over and refortified. The building programme was immense. A case of the latest military technology combined with an unconstrained budget. The castle designs have been compared to those constructed the the Alpine country of Savoy in the same period. This is thought to be because Edward I employed James of St George one of Savoy’s greatest military architects. Others say the similarities came about because Savoyard masons and craftsmen were employed on the projects.

Beaumaris Castle

Beaumaris Castle. Photo ©VisitBritain / David Angel

Each location chosen for the castles was of importance to the defeated Welsh princes. For example, Conwy castle was built on Aberconwy Abbey; the final resting place of the Welsh royalty. In placing these huge fortresses where he did, Edward I was sending a clear message that he considered Wales to be subjugated. While English settlers were encouraged to settle in these new towns, the Welsh locals were banished to live only outside the town walls.

Harlech castle

Harlech castle. Photo ©VisitBritain/ Lee Beel

The castles saw lots of action but seemed to have suffered from the Welsh weather as much as the warfare. Today, these castles and other buildings are maintained and managed by CADW, the arm of the Welsh Government that preserves the country’s heritage. CADW is a Welsh word meaning ‘to keep’ or ‘to protect’. Another key part of CADW’s role is to enable visitors to enjoy the properties in their portfolio. Big sites such as these charge entry. Expect to pay between £4 to £6 per adult depending upon the location. A 3 Day or 7 Day Explorer Pass can offer savings for anyone wanting to visit more than two CADW properties.

Tardis Caernafon Castle

Visitors have been known to come from far afield to visit these castles. Photo by author

John Williams can often be found undertaking sustainable travel or snowboarding; usually while toting a compact camera. You can follow him at @Eurapart and find out more at about.me/JohnWilliams. See more articles by John on the VisitBritain Super Blog.

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