With the exception of weather, which actually wasn’t that bad, North Wales pretty much ticked all my boxes for a good holiday. It was an opportunity to escape from normal life for a little, to go walking in some beautiful scenery and fit in a little bit of history. What I hadn’t realised was quite how much history we’d be fitting in! There are an abundance of castles in North Wales, and even better, they’re pretty easy to travel between. We didn’t get to them all (got to leave something for next time!) but here’s a quick guide to the ones we did see.
Caernarfon Castle: The Big One
Caernarfon was the first of the castles that we visited and the only one that I had planned on going to in advance. Along with Harlech, Conwy and Beaumaris Castles, it has been part of the Castles and Town Walls of Edward 1 World Heritage Site since 1986.
Whilst it’s a ruin, like all of the castles we visited, you can walk around the walls and go up the towers which provides you with plenty of opportunity to explore. The short video that was played in the base of one of the towers provided the perfect introduction to the history of the castle and the surrounding area, which also provided us with useful context for our other castle visits. The views from the tops of the towers were lovely on a grey day, so I imagine they would be stunning on a clear day. One side looks out over the Menai Strait to Anglesey, whilst the other side looks out over the town and beyond to the peaks of Snowdonia.
We actually ended up coming to Caernarfon Castle twice as we returned to watch an outdoor production of The Tempest by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the end of the week. It was a great way to round off our trip to North Wales and the castle provided great surroundings for the performance. We were lucky with the weather that evening but if there’s something on whilst you’re there then I’d recommend going.
Conwy Castle: The Pretty One
Conwy Castle was the next one we visited and was slightly smaller than Caernarfon. I’m calling it the pretty one not due to the castle itself (if anything with its scaffolding up it didn’t look particularly attractive) but because of its surroundings. I thought Conwy was a really pretty town, and the castle added to this aesthetic.
One of the most impressive things about the castle was how quickly it was built. It was started in 1283 and both the town walls and the castle were complete by 1287. The town walls are one of the best sets of medieval defences in Europe and it is possible to walk around most of the town. They are much steeper to walk along than the roman walls of Chester or York but provide beautiful views and allow you to see the castle from all different angles.
Beaumaris Castle: The Perfect One
Beaumaris Castle is described as being technically perfect as it looks like a textbook model of a castle with its concentric walls. However, unfortunately it was never finished as Edward I ran out of money whilst building it. We had the worst weather while walking around this castle which is probably why I don’t have a particularly fond memory of it, however it was another good one for walking around.
In addition to walking along the tops of the castle walls, you can walk around inside the walls down long corridors. It was also the only castle we visited which had a moat rather than having being built right next to the water.
Criccieth Castle: The Small One
Criccieth Castle was the only one that we visited which wasn’t part of the World Heritage Site, which might be why it seemed much smaller and a little disappointing in comparison. There seemed to be less of the castle still to walk around, and so the visit didn’t take as long. However, the accompanying exhibition to the castle was fantastic. It was a mixture of information boards and hands-on exhibits which we spent much longer interacting with than the castle itself.
Whilst it was small, you can easily see the strong defensive position that this castle would have had and the views all around are great. On a clear day you can even see Harlech Castle in the distance, across the water.
Harlech Castle: The One with a Long History
The famous song “Men of Harlech” (which I hadn’t actually heard of…) was written about the siege of Harlech during the wars of the roses. The castle was originally built years before from 1282 to 1289 . Harlech was also a stronghold in the English Civil War, and was the last fortification to surrender to the Parliamentary armies. It later inspired prominent artists who were attracted by its romantic ruins. It’s a castle with a long history which is why it’s one of Wales’s most famous castles.
We managed to squeeze Harlech in on our final day, just so that we had completed all of the castles making up the World Heritage Site. It gives stunning views over Snowdonia National Park, and whilst similar in some ways to the other castles we visited, it still had its own unique character.
If you plan on seeing quite a few castles in the area, I’d recommend looking into membership or a multi-day visitor pass as it could end up being better value than purchasing individual tickets to each of the sites. Part of the reason we saw so many was because we’ve been English Heritage members for over a year, and as a result get free access to Cadw properties.
We barely scratched the surface on the castles that we could have seen, although admittedly we went to see the largest and most famous in the area. If you are interested in history, or like to explore castle ruins then North Wales is definitely a great place to be!