Wales is home to more than 600 castles, including several within a day’s march.
Wales boasts more castles per square mile than any other country on earth. More than 600, in just a small country. Why so many castles? Well, because of a big bad English king who wanted to let the Welsh know who was in charge.
That king was King Edward I, who, beginning in 1283, ordered his legendary “Iron Ring” of castles to be built around the perimeter of Wales — each a day’s march apart from the other. We visited three of those castles in North Wales: Harlech, Beaumaris and Caernarfon, King Edward’s grandest. Caernarfon was the king’s headquarters, the jewel in his crown.
Caernarfon Castle is a World Heritage Site, it’s really, really big, and its design is unique. While many of the other castles have round towers, this one is polygonal and has a Byzantine design, with horizontal stripes. Why the Byzantine design all the way here in the West? This is where it gets really interesting: Apparently, the king believed his reign was fulfilling the dream of ancient Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus. So, in order to show he was the modern-day ruler of the Roman Empire, he built Caernarfon to look like the legendary striped Walls of Constantinople. King Edward I was now just like Constantine the Great, only a thousand miles away from Turkey, up in the British Isles.
Caernarfon Castle continues to hold importance to England and Wales today. It’s where every Prince of Wales has been invested, from the first, King Edward I’s son, King Edward II, to the most recent, Prince Charles.
Today, what makes visiting such an important and imposing castle so enjoyable is the little village that developed around it. You will learn quickly in Wales that where there is a castle, there’s always a lovely little village nearby.
Harlech Castle is completely different than Caernarfon. Its towers are round, not striped, and it was built to withstand attack, instead of expressing an ego. Its location was hugely important. It is perched hundreds of feet up in the air, high upon a hill, overlooking the valley and Irish Sea below. When you stand at the base, it really looks like the castle is growing right out of the cliff’s edge. It was, and is, the perfect lookout point. The views of Snowdonia from up top are incredible.
Built between 1283 and1289, Harlech Castle was modeled after the majestic castles of the historic Savoy Kingdom. Savoy is where France and Switzerland are today. Only the top master masons were selected to design Harlech Castle, and one of those was Master James of St. George. King Edward brought him to Wales from Savoy, and he went on to design many of the castles in Wales.
Harlech Castle has inspired songs, poems, works of art, and a darling little village that surrounds it. So today, when you visit, there are wonderful little centuries-old stone cottages that have been turned into shops and B&Bs. Although in Wales, they’re not called B&Bs, but instead, “Restaurant with Rooms.” Wales is also known for its cheeses and cheese festivals, and Harlech has its own varieties. Harlech village is the perfect place to try and buy a few.
But back to our castles: Beaumaris Castle was also designed by Master James of St. George, who designed Harlech. The name loosely translates to “beautiful marsh,” and when you visit, you’ll see why. There’s a giant moat surrounding the castle, which provides lovely reflections of this sort-of-squatty castle. Beaumaris’ height is not that tall, for good reason: It was never finished. Both King Edward I and Master James died before the castle was completed. But what was completed is stunning. It’s a bit of a castle inside a castle, for added protection. But all those layers were never needed: In all its history, Beaumaris was never attacked.
And that feeling of peace permeates the darling town of Beaumaris today. Here you’ll find one of the oldest houses in all of Britain, dating back to the 1400s. There’s a little sign over the doorway so you can take your photo in front of it. But mostly the town is 18th-century candy-colored townhouses lining the main street. Here you’ll find a wonderful little ice cream parlor. We happened to visit in the winter, and yes, locals were eating ice cream when it was 41 degrees outside. That explains why the puffin is the town symbol. You’ll see the Beaumaris puffin at the top of the many street signs, written in Welsh first, then English.
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