Saturday, 1 August 2015

World Heritage in Wales - Conwy castle

Wales is often described as a 'country of castles', with the remains of perhaps over 600 castles dotting the Welsh landscape. That reminds us the the Welsh were feisty, and pretty keen on defending the territory they held.

Not all Welsh castles were built by the Welsh. Many of the well known and best preserved castles in Wales were built by invaders to hold onto territory they had taken control of. The most famous invaders were the Normans, who built the first stone castle in Wales - Chepstow. They went on to build a number of castles across south east Wales, the remains of which are visible today.

However, Edward I, the King of England in the late 1200s, took castle building to a completely new level. He was so determined to subdue the Welsh, and bring them and their lands under his control, that he built a series of castles along the north and north west coast of Wales, all designed to be supplied by sea. Four of those castles, Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy & Harlech, and the town walls of Caernarfon and Conwy, were designated a world heritage site in 1986. The reason for this is that is that these are superb examples of castle design.

Conwy castle is built on a rocky outcrop. This made building the castle a little trickier, but has advantages - stable and strong foundations, which can't be undermined by your enemies. As with Edward I's other castles in n orth Wales, the castle is built on the shore so that it could be supplied by sea, but another reason the castle was built on this spot is that it was on the opposite shore of the river Conwy to Deganwy castle, once an important castle of the Princes of Gwynedd. Building it here sent a message about power - 'here I am, right in your heartland, and I am here to stay'....

The castle was the first one of Edward I's castles built in Gwynedd (the old Welsh kingdom, not the modern county). Building it on the rocky outcrop limited the size of the castle, but raised it higher in the landscape than building it elsewhere. It is a compact castle of tall towers and contains grand accommodation, a chapel, and a prison.

As well as the castle, Edward had defensive walls built, which are just as formidable and impregnable as those of the castle. 

These were designed to surround the new town he had planned for this place. There was an originally an Abbey here, whose patrons had been Welsh princes, and he had the Abbey moved 20 or so miles south. All that remains of it is the church in the centre of town.  The town walls surround the town on 3 sides, with the fourth side of the town being protected by the sea.  There were only two gates in the town walls when they were built, which were easy to defend.

You can walk around the top of the town walls today, it's really interesting seeing the town from on high, you can see how it was all originally laid out. Plus the views of Deganwy, the surrounding countryside, and boats on the water are amazing.

Back to the castle....

The crenellations along the tops of the towers are huge, and each defensive wall has an arrowloop in it. This was a safe place for archers to work. The stone walkways are level, and there are drain holes, designed to take surface water away. Perhaps it rained a lot in Wales in the late 1200s?

The towers are tall, and the men inside the castle would have had excellent views from the top of these - no enemies would sneak past this castle un-noticed.

The accommodation within the castle included grand apartments, designed for Royal visits, but probably lived in by the first Constable of the castle - William de Cicun. As you can probably tell by the name, his family was French. In fact, many of the people who lived in the castle and within the town walls were of French ancersty, and there was even an Italian living ion the town in 1303, quite cosmopolitan! French was the language of the nobles, and it was heard on the streets of Conwy more often 700 years ago than it is today!

There are some stunning fireplaces in the castle. You can tell a lot from a fireplace. Small fireplaces are for keeping working people warm, and they would probably have warmed food over them too. You find these in guardrooms, and small 'offices'.

Large fireplaces are either for keeping people of high status warm in their spacious chambers, or in kitchens, where they were used to roast meat, and cook pottage as well as making sauces and custards and suchlike. This fireplace is located in the apartments, in what was probably a bedroom. Imagine being the boy that had to carry all the chopped wood up the spiral stairs to this room (and probably all the other rooms with fireplaces) every day? He'd be fit, and strong.

Here you can see the inside of the castle. Where there is grass now, there were once buildings against the castle walls - stables, storerooms, maybe accommodation for the grooms and men who guarded this castle on a daily basis. To the left of the image below, you can see an indication of the grandeur of this castle when it was built, the stonework is designed for looks as much as strength, and on the other side of that wall are the grand apartments and hall, which had elegant stone arches holding the roof up.

Of course, not everything stays the same forever. Thomas Telford came here and bridged the river Conwy with one of the first suspension bridges in the world in the 1820s. He mirrored the castle towers in his design, which you can see in the middle of the picture below. Part of the castle had to be demolished in order to anchor the suspension cables. Can you imagine that happening today?

Telford's bridge is only 2.5 wide, and was built to carry pedestrians and horse drawn coaches and carts. It wasn't really strong enough for heavy use by motor vehicles. When I was a young child, I regularly used to travel on the bus between Bangor and Chester with my mother. The bus used to stop on one side of the bridge, all the passengers had to get off, tthen he driver used to drive the bus across while we all walked, and then we got onto the bus again to resume our journey.

The suspension bridge was replaced by the modern road bridge to the left of the picture, in the early 1960s. The bridge to the right of the picture is a rail bridge, built in 1848 by another very famous Victorian - Robert Stephenson.