Destination: The Ring of Iron
What is the Ring of Iron?
The Ring of Iron is a World Heritage site...or more accurately sites...located in North Wales. It consists of the four great castles at Conwy, Caernarvon, Beaumaris and Harlech.
Preserved, and in some cases partially restored, the Ring castles were built very close to the point at which the cannon made castles obsolete and represent the highest state of the castle building art.
The relationship between England and Wales has often been stormy and troubled. To this day, Welsh Nationalists seek to separate their country from the union, although some were pacified by their own regional parliament. (Anecdotally, there are still people in Wales who will pointedly switch to Welsh if a "foreigner" enters the room, despite normally speaking English).
Edward I had particular troubles with the Welsh. They rose up against him constantly and pacifying the countryside proved expensive. However, he was too proud (or too afraid of being seen as weak) to give him. He heavily garrisoned Wales, especially the northern part - always the hotbed of nationalism. The height of this was the four castles of the Ring of Iron or Iron Ring, so named because they encircled the particularly troublesome, mountainous region of Snowdonia. Three of the four castles were built on the northern coast, with the fourth at the southwest edge of the region.
Eventually, the castles fell into disuse and disrepair. Many centuries later, their historical value would be recognized and they would be propped up and carefully restored.
Harlech is the outlier (in fact, some people only visit the three northern castles and never make it to the south side of Snowdonia).
Backing onto the sea, Harlech is a rectangular citadel. Only the east face needed to be defended...the sea and cliffs took care of the other sides and, in case of siege, the castle could easily be supplied by water.
Because of this, the primary building is, rather than a traditional keep, a gatehouse with three portcullises. The main accommodation, including the chambers that would have been occupied by the King if he was in residence, was above the gatehouse. The inner ward, however, is smaller than most castles - Harlech would probably have held a smaller garrison than the others.
Conwy is, on the face of it, in an odd place for a castle. Tucked into the estuary of the River Conwy, it's one of the few Medieval castles on which one can readily look down.
The original castle was, in fact, on a hilltop above the fishing village of Deganwy (which was also the original town). Anecdotally, Edward I spent one night at the windswept castle and never went there again, instead choosing to build an entire new castle - and linked walled borough - in the valley.
The truth was that Edward I could not trust the Welsh-controlled hinterland. All of the Iron Ring castles were built to be resupplied by sea and Conwy, next to the harbor, was no exception.
Conwy is an oddly shaped castle, long and thin with two wards of odd shape. It was built to follow the contours of a natural rock, adding to its height and defensiveness. In other words, Conwy demonstrates the castle builder making use of the environment. Visitors will note the original single lane road bridge across the Conwy is actually secured into the outer wall of the castle. It falls between the modern road bridge and an intriguing tubular rail bridge with towers designed to blend in with the castle.
The castle dominates the town with eight round towers, several of them having additional turrets. The walls and towers are in excellent condition, but most of the interior buildings are either gone or gutted. The Great Hall still stands, but no longer has a roof. Despite this, the castle still gives a good sense of just how intimidating it (and its town full of transplanted Englishman) would have been to the Welsh shepherds. Even if they did get to look down at it.
If visiting Conwy, allow extra time to walk the circuit of the town's Medieval walls, some of the best preserved in the world.
"I promise you a Prince who will speak no English." Anecdotally, Edward I spoke these words to try and calm the Welsh.
Not long afterwards he presented them their Prince - his infant son. Of course, the Prince spoke no English...but he also spoke no Welsh. Since then, the title held by the heir to the British crown has been "Prince of Wales."
Caernarvon is the best preserved of the Iron Ring castles for a reason - it is still the ceremonial seat of the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles was invested in the grounds, aged 20, on July 1, 1969. (He was officially declared the Prince at the age of 9, but the investiture itself was delayed until he was an adult).
The direct line heirs to the throne are traditionally presented from the balcony of the Queen's Gate at Caernarvon soon after their birth - a vestige of Medieval tradition in which the people were permitted to examine their future king in order to see for themselves he had all of the required limbs. The last presentation was that of Prince William. The next will, all going well, take place some time late summer - the presentation of the eldest child of William and Katherine of Cambridge. (This child will be the first to be confirmed as heir and continue to hold that position regardless of gender).
All of this makes Caernarvon of vital importance if you care about the pomp and circumstance of the British monarchy.
If you don't? Caernarvon is still something to see. On the town side, visitors can clearly see the stripes in the castle walls, where different colors of stone were used solely for the sake of appearance. (Note that these stripes are not present in locations where the walls can only be seen from the water). Next to the harbor, Caernarvon looks almost intact from outside and, indeed, has been carefully preserved and restored to ensure it can continue to perform its ceremonial role (although it is no longer habitable).
Caernarvon was in a strategically vital position to protect the southern end of the Menai straits. As at Conwy, Edward I built a town and filled it with Englishmen - in this case razing the original town of Caernarfon (you can't blame the Welsh for not liking the English, really).
Conwy represents the castle builder taking full advantage of natural defenses.
Beaumaris represents what can be done with a completely empty and flat site. The castle is five sided and shows the highest art of castle building - the concentric castle.
The castle was surrounded by a moat, part of which still exists and is filled with seawater (it is very unusual to find a moat that has not been filled in or at least drained). Inside the moat were the outer walls and inside that the higher inner walls. If besieging soldiers got inside the walls, they would end up in killing fields between the two walls (in fact, it was a legitimate tactic to let them get past the first walls and then catch them between the two). The inner ward held not one, but two keeps, each built over a gate.
Beaumaris looks very squat...there's a reason for that. In fact, it might be assumed that the castle is in a poorer state of repair. This is not true. Beaumaris was the last castle built - and castles are very expensive. In fact, King Edward ran out of money. Beaumaris, in other words, was never finished. Its plan, however, still shows what a concentric castle should be. Beaumaris was intended to guard the Menai straits from the north - be warned that you will have to drive a length of the Anglesey coast road to get to it, and that road is not for the faint hearted.
Visiting the Castles
All four castles are managed by Cadw, a branch of the Welsh government set up to preserve the history of Wales and keep it accessible to the general public.
Admission is charged, but is reasonable. As they are Medieval castles, however, most of the interior is not accessible to the disabled. All four castles do have toilets and at least some food available.
Allow about half to three-quarters of a day per castle - really, it's best to allocate a day per castle and then spend the rest of each day exploring the immediate area. The castles are generally open until early evening and closed Christmas and New Years Day.
If you plan on visiting all four and are also interested in other Cadw sites, you can get a three or seven day explorer pass that covers admission to all sites for that time period.
Wear sensible shoes. Although the spiral staircases to the wallwalks and towers are well preserved, they have narrow steps and it can be a challenge to navigate past people coming in the other direction. Sneakers or walking shoes are best. Take a rain jacket - I got rained on at Beaumaris so hard I was cursing having not brought my rain pants as well - the wallwalks and towers are very exposed to the elements.
Take great cair on staircases and walks - some of those towers are a long way up. (Oh and at Caernarvon, be careful not to trip over the chimneys on the towers...they're at rather a good height for that). Don't allow children to climb walls or ruins inside the wards or to stand on the battlements. Keep younger children close to you. Don't lean on wooden railings - they might not be entirely stable.