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Tuesday, August 7th:
We’ve just had a wonderful breakfast in the dining room. Although it is very rainy today, we are set to see Caernarfon and Beaumaris castles. We are going to do our best to tromp around in the rain but hopefully it’ll stop at some point so we can enjoy the grounds at the hotel later on this afternoon. And, to tell you the truth, walking on those wet stones at the castles isn’t easier when it’s slippery.
The name Caernarfon is ancient. There has been a castle on this spot for centuries. The castle and town walls built by Edward I between 1285 and 1322 were successors to a strategic Roman fortification built in the vicinity more than a thousand years earlier. Taking its name from the river Seiont, it was garrisoned by the 20th Augustin Legion from Rome. Its foundations can still be seen today. Caernarfon is a massive castle but was never completed, for a variety of reasons.
The fortification that stands today, Caernarfon Castle, was probably one of the most ambitious military construction projects of the middle ages, spawned by two 13th century conflicts with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, prince of the ancient kingdom of Gwynedd. Caernarfon is part of a network of fortifications that include Conway, Rhuddlan, Denby, Flint, Roofen, Hope, Harley, Aberest, Gwynedd and Buell. How it all came about is explained in an excellent permanent exhibition within the castle walls.
The Prince of Wales’ investiture was held in Caernarfon Castle in 1969. When Prince Charles was invested at that time, an obituary was secretly written in case he was assassinated, although the Welsh seemed to have accepted the English more easily than either the Irish or the Scottish – more on that later.
Caernarfon, like Conwy, is a walled castle and walled city. Beaumaris is not a walled city and neither Beaumaris nor Caernarfon were ever completely finished. Most of the large castles are between 20 and 25 miles apart and also in this part of Wales there are thousands of foothills between them. Rhuddlan is not on scale of either of the castles that we are going to see today, nor was it on the scale of Conwy, which we saw yesterday. One thing to not forget about Caernarfon is that Edward meant it to be a fortress/palace.
Coming up to the castle – and yes, we almost got lost but didn’t – we saw another of those awe-inspiring sights where you see it from a slight distance and the majesty and sheer size of the place makes you forget to breathe.
Begun by Edward I in 1283 during his conquest of Wales, Caernarfon was both fortress and palace in the principle sea of government for North Wales. It was the birthplace of the first English Prince of Wales in 1284 and has accommodated the investitures of the last two Princes in 1911 and 1969.
We are waiting to catch a tour from the inside keep. It’s very impressive, even in the pouring rain. There is so much to say about Caernarfon, it’s hard to know where to start. The pronunciation of it is “Canarvin.” While the first Prince of Wales may have been born here, he wasn’t actually born in the castle, as the myth goes, because it wouldn’t have been built yet. It was just starting to have been built. There are no dungeons because they didn’t actually take prisoners, they just killed people.
The entryway had three complete portcullis’ and two big sets of doors, plus murder holes in two separate places to kill people from above. The fourth portcullis (and the wall on the other side) was never completed, so it doesn’t exist. All around the castle, the towers and the doorways have protrusions that would have been fit from the other side had they finished the castle. Edward ran out of money and had pretty much taken care of the rebellions; the first was so bloodthirsty that there wasn’t really a second. And, his attention was taken away by the Scottish rebellions of William Wallace. Still, it’s more complete than the castle at Beaumaris, and is a larger castle than that we saw at Conwy.
Something we found very interesting was the hot water system. They had lead-lined gullies leading into the kitchen. One set was over a fire so that the water could be heated while the other was not, so could be used for cold water. They didn’t know at the time that lead was poisonous, of course, and as the castle ceased to be occupied, the lead was stolen from it. The photo below on the left shows part of the kitchen.
Something I didn’t know was that the castle ceased to be occupied (in 1485) when Henry VII ascended to the throne. Henry was Welsh…but I digress. Let’s get back to the castle itself.
By the time Henry VII assumed the throne, there were no more Welsh rebellions – unlike the Scottish and Irish, the Welsh seemed to have given in earlier. The first rebellion occurred when Edward had just started the castle. Because of it he built a whole other internal wall to keep the Welsh out. It’s a walled city and on one wall they have a very unique set-up for shooting arrows, as you’ll see in the photo directly below. You can shoot one out at an angle to the left, another straight, and another at an angle to the right, effectively tripling coverage.
Amazingly, the largest force at the castle was only 28 men. There are five sets of those three arrow slits, which made it quite impossible for the Welsh to attack. In fact, after that first rebellion when they destroyed the castle, they were never able to get back in.
There are 11 staircases. Seven are the so-called right handed, four were the so-called left handed, but this particular tour guide did not buy that theory of clockwise and counterclockwise.
We are upstairs in the Eagle’s Tower now waiting for the film about Welsh history to begin. This would, no doubt, have been the king’s multi-media room. <g> Edward fancied himself quite the emperor so he used the Roman eagle, which was the symbol of Rome, on top of the Eagle’s Tower. Another reason why there is such strong Roman influence is that after the Romans had been here for so many years, the Welsh had begun to meld their history into that of their own people. It is this influence Edward used to worm his way into the area.
The castle itself was modeled after a castle in Constantinople where he had been in the crusades. I have definitively learned with a buttery is. It’s attached to the main dining hall and where liquor was stored. The word “butler” comes from the “buttle” in “buttery.”
The word “threshold” comes from the thresh you would put on the other side of the door and they would cover it up in a box and that’s where the term “thresh-hold” comes from. Whether or not the 28 soldiers who were garrisoned here actually made it to the garderobes is not known. They perhaps would have used the rushes at the side of the room, which would cause, of course, for them to be changed quite often. Only the English and French were allowed to live in the walled towns. The colored stone parts of the building was something that was only done here and so was the octagonal shape of the towers.
One of the reasons why Edward built all these castles is that the local Welsh prince would not swear fealty to him as other Welsh princes had. The English, of course, had come through Wales earlier with Harold, who was killed in the Battle of Hastings, but then the Welsh had retaken the land until Edward and his ring of castles.
We are on the other side of the moat now and are watching a mama swan and five baby swans. The babies, as you can see, are not white like their mother and must be in that “ugly duckling phase,” although I think they’re quite graceful looking myself.
From this position we can look up at the King’s tower, which is tremendous in size. It is at least five stories (five windows) and then a battlement on top with at least two narrow towers going up above that. The baby swans, of course, are not white and they remind you of the Hans Christian Anderson story of the ugly duckling because they certainly don’t look as beautiful as swans, although they have nice long necks, but they are rather grayish brown.
We just bought some lovely Welsh wool blankets and had them mailed home to us. Of course, we also stopped in another store so I could look at the Celtic jewelry and found myself the dragon bracelet, broach with a purple stone at the center, and the Celtic cross I’ve always wanted.
The sun is actually shining now. The first we’ve seen in a couple of days. Let’s keep a good thought! On to Beaumaris.
Through my amazing navigating abilities, I got us to Beaumaris where, of course, the minute we got out of the car it started to rain. We are going to find something to eat and then we are going to tour the castle.
Beaumaris is, indeed, much squatter than any of the other castles we have been before. It doesn’t look that squat when you see it in pictures, but it is.
We walked into a bakery and bought ourselves two ham pasties. My husband, the gourmand who’ll eat just about anything, took a bite and was grossed out by the gelatinous quality of it. So, it wasn’t hot, but it didn’t seem that bad to me. Regardless, we tossed them and found someplace else to eat. My husband’s obsession with doors reached its apex today as we stood in the rain, waiting to eat and then see a castle, he took three more pictures of doors. I’ve been with him until now, but was that last door really necessary?
We finally found a place to eat; he’s going to have the chicken and mushroom pasty and I am going to have a cheese and onion one and we are going to have them warm. To go with the pasties came mushed peas and french fried potatoes and brown gravy. Everyone was eating this, so we decided we would too…it was definitely a new taste sensation.
Beaumaris was the final link in the chain of castles built by Edward I during and after the two military campaigns in which he conquered Wales. Being on flat marshy ground, Beaumaris means, “fair marsh.” It had to rely entirely upon man-made fortification. Its symmetrical layout and multiple defenses represent the high point of medieval castle design.
Construction began in 1295, twelve years after the last campaign, following the revolt the previous year. For the first two seasons, work progressed at breakneck speed, employing up to 2,600 men, but heavy demands in Scotland soon caused it to almost cease. As a result, the castle was never completed to its full height and presents a rather squat appearance today. In plan, the defenses are concentric, a double ring of walls surrounded by a moat. This not only provided greatly increased firepower, but also since inner walls overlooked outer walls, it presented would-be attackers with a virtually impenetrable series of obstacles. It’s hard to say how much taller it would have been had it been finished, but because it’s irregular at the top with parts up and down, it’s hard to know how tall it was originally planned to be, and whether or not parts of the walls were scavenged or just never finished.
The main gate to Beaumaris was protected by a carefully planned sequence of defenses. First the moat, then a drawbridge and outer gate and finally the multiple defenses of the inner gate. At every stage high and low level arrow loops provided cover in fire. The inner gate house was defended first by a barbican, then by three successive pairs of barred gates and portcullises. Being set deliberately off line to the outer gate would force would be attackers into exposing their left flank to archers waiting above. The scaffolding used to create these castles was very ingenious. When we were in Conwy, you could see at a sort of a diagonal set of holes where they would stick logs in and build up to that point, then go to the next level and go to the level above that. You can see some of that still left over here as well.
Although it’s much more squat than the other ones, we notice we’re standing against a wall that’s at least fifty feet high.
We saw some more swans at Beaumaris. They were certainly larger than babies, but were still not fully grown. They were still brownish in color and they are their mom were waddling about, heading toward a Budweiser bucket were we saw lunch waiting for them.
I think the squatness of Beaumaris is emphasized by the roundness of the towers. They are short and wide. The outer wall, which circled the main inner stronghold, had 15 towers and arrow loops at the second and third levels, providing over 300 shooting positions for the few archers inside. Both sets of walls were well-supplied by latrines, sometimes three levels of them in the inner wall.
You would have go through the portcullises and doors of the outer walls before getting into the inner walls and that is, of course, already inside the castle. You have the outer castle wall and then you have the outer set of towers and then the inner set of towers. There even appears to be an inner set of doors or portcullises or there is an inner archway that takes you inside the entire inside, which is the inner courtyard.
Beaumaris is the last castle built by Edward I in Wales and by far the largest. Although never completed, it is clear from what survived that the inner ward was planned on a lavish scale. I got confused, because there are so many entry points, so many arches with doors and portcullises, that it looks like it is adding another level of building. All of Edward I’s new castles in North Wales were set where they could be supplied by sea. At Beaumaris, the defenses incorporated a dock for sea going vessels. The dock was filled by sea water through a wide shipping channel, long since covered in. The castle moat was supplied by fresh water streamed from the north and the level between the two was regulated by a fluce gate in gunner’s walk. Ships up to 40 tons could sail into here on high tide, tie up at the iron rings in the wall and unload their supplies into the doorway in the castle wall. The dock was defended by archers and artillery in gunner’s walk and beneath this was a corn mill, which must have increased the castle’s self-sufficiency. The foundations of the wall linked to the castle and closed the town. Although planned from the start, the town wall was not built until 1414.
Although so unfinished and beat up, Beaumaris still has its own charm, even though it is very different than the Conwy or Caernarfon. There is no tour at Beaumaris, nor is there nearly the amount of traffic there is at the other castles, likely because this is on an island and most people just don’t make it out this far. The road was rather harrowing. Very narrow road, right next to the ocean, some high up, some not. When we came out of the mountain road, we were practically at sea level…and then, of course, we were at sea level.
The sun seems to really be out for good now. It’s a little after 4:00 in the afternoon and we have driven back to Bodysgallen, taken our treasures upstairs, and have gone downstairs for a nice walk in the garden. The garden is so renowned it is listed in the guide to the historic parks and gardens of Wales. Apparently, people come here simply to look at the garden, rather than just to stay here.
There was a little stream, there were reflecting pools, there were benches. It was really very pretty and very restful. We are further down into the garden now and there is a more formal sort of courtyard with rose gardens and there are beautiful lavender patches with lots of lavender bees. I bet they make a fine honey here. Outside the formal courtyard downstairs there are many paths leading to little garden areas with a profusion of flowers. Different colors, so nice. As we head out deeper into the countryside, we have left the grass covering and the smells of the roses and the other flowers and into the smell of the forest. It is still very beautiful, with lots of tall trees and the sun poking through, but has a wilder feel to it. After walking through this wooded area, we came to the outer wall, about 2 ½ to 3 feet high off the ground which looked out over the bucolic herd of cows (they were standing).
We decided to continue our walk and enjoy the peace and quiet. A trip to Great Britain just isn’t complete unless you have taken pictures of cows and sheep. After finishing the perimeter of the property, we headed back to the more formal garden. This part is quite lovely, as are the views of the house from the back. I know Martha Stewart would be very happy here. I can’t remember the technique she called this, but they have trained trees into V’s along one of the walls for a mini-orchard effect. There are a profusion of fruits, berries, and vegetables growing here, along with flowers and some sort of apple I’ve never seen before. The little reflecting pool even has some fish.
We are on our way into Llandudno proper for dinner now, and on our way out of the hotel’s private drive down toward the main street, we saw what looked to be pheasant or grouse just nibbling grass on the side of the road.
We’ve parked in Llandudno and now we are wandering around on our way to find a place for dinner. This is a beautiful little Victorian resort town. We just went into a little convenience store to buy new batteries and they had a bookstand outside and I only recognized three authors: LaVyrle Spencer, Danielle Steel, and Catherine Cookson. The books look like Regencies or YA novels and are often quite gothic looking, but nothing I recognize at all. One title, by an Ann Baker, is called Legacy of Sins. From Lynn Andrews is Liverpool Lamp Lights and from Marina Oliver, The Cobweb Cage.
As we continue walking we realize how jaded we’ve become – we pass a church built in 1865 and don’t even get excited about it. I am hearing complaints, however, about the Staple’s, KFC, and McDonalds we passed on our drive into town.
We had a very nice and inexpensive dinner at a coffee shop kind of place, including massive desserts of hot fudge chocolate cake and a “home-made” trifle that tastes suspiciously like jello with fruit and whipped cream. We walked around some more but eventually went back to our hotel to pack for tomorrow, when we have what will be probably the most difficult day of our trip. We’ll be driving from northern to southern Wales, and there’s no large highway to take us along our journey.
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