Random notes on the travels of a Welshman who has been allowed out to play after finishing his chores. OK so I don't travel with my Aunt, but I am usually under the adult supervision of my long suffering wife.
The weekend weather was glorious, a cloudless sky, temperatures in the mid 20s. What else could we do except spend the day at the seaside? And there are fewer beaches better than that at Llansteffan. And there’s a castle, what else could we need? There have been people living at LLansteffan for 1000s of years. The present castle, well what’s left of it at least, was built on the the site of a bivallate Iron Age promontory fort towering over the River Tywi. The original castle made use of the older earthwork ditches. In many ways this is a perfect place for a castle, with an approach only possible from the landward side, there other three sides protected. by steep slopes and cliffs.
The first Norman castle was built sometime in the 1100s. The date is uncertain as there are no written records that detail it’s construction. The secluded beach soon became a shipping haven and a borough grew up in the shadow of the castle. It was captured in 1146 by the grandsons of Rhys ap Tewdwr (d1093), the last prince of South West Wales. They managed to defend it from an attempt by the Normans to recapture it, but then abandoned the castle. The castle was then granted to the de Camille family, but was again attacked and taken by Lord Rhys in 1189 (one of the earlier successful attackers in 1146). Then again in 1215 Llewelyn Fawr attacked. Each time the castle was restored to the de Camille family who repaired and improved the castle. But obviously not well enough, as in 1257 Rhys Fechan, Lord Rhys’s grandson, attacked the castle. It seems to be a family tradition.
The castle was attacked for the last time in 1405-6 by Owain Glyndwr. It eventually reverted back to the crown, and was possessed for a while by Jasper Tudor, Henry IV’s uncle. But over the years the castle was neglected and fell into ruin. By the 18th century, the structure had survived as a part of a private farm. But don’t let the fact that it is a ruin put you off from climbing up the steep hill to visit. The nearest carpark is either on the sea shore or in the town itself, but the 3/4 mile walk is worth it. And because it requires a little effort you are likely to find the place deserted and all to yourself.
For a while Llansteffan remained a small village, dependent upon fishing and cockles, but the the advent of Romanticism in the early 18th century, the village had a new lease of life. With a fantasic scenery, a ruined castle, and easy access by ferry, Llansteffan began to attract antiquaries and artists. Turner may be one of the most prominent.
As fashion for sea-bathing spread throughout Wales along with the advent of trains to Ferryside on the opposite bank of the Tawe, the number of visitors increased. Ferry boats would meet the trains at Ferryside, bringing them across the river to the wide sandy beach. Summer visitors increased further with miners holidays in August. Entertainment was provided by concerts, eisteddfodau and dances. The highlight of the holiday was the Mock Mayor ceremony, held in the woodland known as the Sticks, where a platform was erected and basic seating provided.
The village is charming, though the shops have almost all gone now, not surprising today. The village Pound, once used to house stray animals is now a gallery, there’s still a village store that doubles as the post office and restaurant. But if you fancy lunch you could follow us into the ‘Inn at the Sticks”, go on you know you’re hungry.
After climbing mountains with Paul S during our holiday recently in North Wales it was time for something a little more relaxing. And what better place to visit than a welsh castle, and we have a lot to choose from here in Wales. Castle Dolbadarn stands proud on a small hill overlooking Llyn Padarn and Llyn Peris, but the whole area is dominated now by the remains of one of the largest slate mines in Wales. But this just add to the overall ambiance of the place. The severe juxtaposition of the beauty of Llanberis, nestling under the shadow of Snowdon with the severrity of the industrial exploitation of natural resources and the romantic mystery of castles (although they were built for real reasons of defence and violence) is striking. This tripartite conflict of concepts makes this place important. Add to this that it was built by Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, one the hero’s Wales makes it a place to visit.
Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynedd, had spent a great deal of his reign in consolidating his control not only over North Wales, but also of the rest of Wales. As if this was not enough Llewelyn was also in conflict with both King John and King Henry III of England. Once he had united most of Wales under his rule and resisted pressure from England there was a need to strengthen the defences and Castell Dolbadarn was an integral part of this effort to consolidate and protect his lands. Dolbadarn, along with similar castles at Dolwyddelen and Castell-y-Bere protected the main land access points into the stronghold of Gwynedd. Built sometime before 1230, Dolbadarn protected the Llanberis Pass, control access into Snowdonia and the valuable livestock pasture of the valleys below. Llewelyn’s ability to build a series of castles was an outward sign of security of his tenure and growing wealth. Building stone castles were expensive undertakings, and required not only money but skills and manpower to do so.
Dolbadarn was built over a period with different design features, and the tower or main keep is a rare example of a multi-storey round tower built by a Welsh Prince and uniquely it has been fitted with a portcullis. Documentation relating to the building of Dolbadarn is no longer available, if it ever was. Therefore architectural historians are not sure about the sequence of building. But it has been suggested that the keep may have been the last addition to the castle. As well as series of external walls and buildings there are two further ‘towers’, but these were much lower in height compared with the main keep. Another quirk within the castle design is the complex stairway within the keep in which the spiral reverses direction at the halfway point. Compared with the castles built by the English, it is not as large, robust or impressive, and even though it would not have survived a prolonged and determined siege, Dolbarn would still have presented a barrier to anyone entering the pass.
The Welsh were able to hold out against their much stronger and more populous neighbours in England for a considerable time following the invasion in 1066 by Norman the Conquerer. They were helped by multiple civil wars, power struggles and wars with the French over this time. Wales was also a small and poor country and didn’t really represent a major threat to the English Kings. Perhaps would should also remember that the concept of Nationhood as we understand today didn’t really exist then. The King did not “own” the country as such, and all the barons ruled their own areas on behalf of the King. To a certain extent this view was also replicated in Wales, and the Welsh Princes were allowed to rule, but only if they acknowledged the stronger English King as overlord. Throughout this time the Welsh sided with various Barons in the disputes with either the king or other neighbours. Likewise the English allied themselves with the Welsh princes when they fought amongst themselves to gain control. It was all about gaining more land and power. Either by battle or by alliances arranged through marriage. Llewelyn was married to King John’s illegitimate daughter, Joan. And two of their children were likewise married to powerful Marcher lords on the Welsh-English border.
However, the unification of Was under Llewelyn was shorted lived. After his death in 1240 Wales was broken up into the smaller kingdoms of previous years. The Welsh inheritance laws prevented the passing of all titles and power to a single heir, and areas were divided amongst his sons, with Llewelyn ap Gruffudd controlling Gwynedd. Henry III took advantage of this weekend state and at the Treaty of Woodstock (1247) stripped Gwynedd of control of all lands to the east of Conwy. By 1255 though, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last) had defeated his opponents and at the Treaty of Montgomery (1267) was recognised by English and Welsh alike as overlord of Wales. During this period he imprisoned his elder brother, Owain ap Gruffudd, in Dolbadarn Castle; he would spend nearly 20 years incarcerated there living in the top floor of the Keep.
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd came into conflict with Edward I in 1276 after the Welsh Prince failed to perform homage on multiple occasions. The English King invaded the following year and overran the eastern portion of the Principality although Dolbadarn itself, in the central heart of Snowdonia, was far removed from this conflict and saw little action. Nevertheless Llywelyn was defeated and in the Treaty of Aberconwy (1277) accepted the permanent loss of all lands east of the River Conwy. He was also required to release Owain ap Gruffudd from Dolbadarn Castle.
The Second War of Welsh Independence started in 1282 initiated by Dafydd ap Gruffudd, Llewelyn’s younger brother. The Prince had little choice but to support this folly and this time Edward I was determined to conqueror Wales in its entirety. Llywelyn was killed in December 1282 at the Battle of Orewin Bridge whilst Dafydd fled first to Dolwyddelen then onto Castle y Beer and finally to Dolbadarn Castle. One by one the English took these strongholds and Dafydd was eventually captured on 21 June 1283. He was taken to Rhuddlan and subsequent hanged, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury.
Following the conquest of 1283, Dolbadarn Castle was plundered for building materials in support of the construction of Caernarfon. Nevertheless it remained the administrative centre for the Royal manor with some repairs being made in the early fourteenth century and the east building was added at this time. The castle may have been reactivated and used as a prison during the 1400 rebellion led by Owain Glyndŵr for it has been suggested that Lord Grey, captured at Ruthin Castle, was held at the site. Little is known about the castle after this but the external stone stairway was added no later than the mid-eighteenth century by which time Dolbadarn had become a picturesque ruin, and was soon to be painted by Turner.
Perched on the edge of a precipitous cliff overlooking the River Wye is a fantastic castle. And when the sun shines the view over the river towards the majestic walls cannot be ignored and you just have to explore it, climbing towers, peering into dark recesses and tower dungeons. Like any kid who is over 50 years old, I love castles. But of course when I took this photograph the sun wasn’t shining, but that didn’t spoil a great morning. Though it did rain hard later and luckily there was pub near by which not only served great beer but also a fantastic home made steak pie – heaven. But don’t tell Aunty, she wasn’t there. It was a boys day out with Grandad.
Less than a year after William the Conqueror was crowned King of England, William FitzOsbern the Earl of Hereford turned his beady eye towards the rich farming land along the coast of South Wales. So in 1067 he moved across the River Wye and started building Chepstow Castle. This is not only great photogenic site (perhaps he appreciated the aesthetics of making a dramatic stand), but also a strategic point as he now controlled the entrance to the River Wye and the harbour, as well as access to the Severn Estuary. Although the Normans moved into South Wales quickly, it wasn’t easy for them. A simple look at the map will show you the number of castles they had to build to keep control of their conquests. And it took almost 300 years to complete a sweep throughout Wales. There are over 600 castles recorded in Wales, the highest concentration of fortifications anywhere in the world, but there are only 100 or so that are still physically visible today, though the remains of the others can still be worth hunting out.
The castle isn’t your usual square fortification that kids draw with towers at each corner. It occupies a long, narrow ridge on the southern bank of the River Wye and is separated from the town by a deep gully known as ‘the Dingle’. It was enlarged and refortified a number of times over the years by some of the most powerful men of their times. The image from Google Earth shows how it follows the cliff and the Wye on one side with much higher and stronger walls on the landward side. The walls on the river side have large windows, even then then Lords and Ladies liked a good view. Though on the town sides the walls are bereft of windows and only arrow slits are visible.
Wandering around earlier parts of the castle you can’t help but notice red tiles built into the walls. It turns out these are roman tiles form nearby Caerwent, the Roman city of the Silures tribe.
The local Welsh wide boys must have driven up with their cart and said “Here Butty, do you want to buy some tiles?”.
“How many have you got?” asked FitzOsbern.
And Dai answers “How many do you want?”
However, unusually for such a solid and functional building designed to suppress the locals and also to protect those in charge, Chepstow was occupied for a considerable time. Many castles fell into disuse, or were deliberately spoiled by the monarchy of the time to prevent them becoming a focus of resistance. As ownership changed through the vagaries of marriage, dowries and rebellion, Chepstow saw investment in it’s defences and usage. As the threat of rebellion from the Welsh subsided, domestic buildings were added at the end of the thirteenth century and continued to be lived in up to the civil war.
I’ll not spend time here on a full history of the castle, there are others who can do this so much better than I can. But in a potted version after FitzOsbern, it passed to the de Clares another powerful family in the Welsh Borders. Following marriage between Isabelle de Clare and William Marshall in 1179 the castle was extended over a 30 year period. The castle was inherited by John Bigod, but on his death, all his lands, including the castle, were bequeathed to the Crown to pay his debts. Edward II appointed royal constables to oversee the castles; one was the hated Hugh le Despenser, who carried out some repair work on the infrastructure. Queen Isabella’s forces captured the castle in 1326 during another of the seemingly interminable civil wars of the time. Thomas de Brotherton took ownership and eventually, in 1399, it was in the possession of Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Throughout Owain Glyndwr’s uprising the castle wasn’t threatened and was only manned by twenty men-at-arms and sixty archers. In 1405, Thomas Mowbray was executed for treason and the castle was taken over by William Herbert, who was Lord of Raglan and the Earl of Pembroke.
Now the Pembroke family were stanch Royalists and during the Civil War held the castle for the Crown. Much of Wales was Royalist, though I’m not sure if this related to the general public or just the landholders who couldn’t see any profit for themselves to join the revolution. By 1643, the Parliamentarians had made significant gains throughout the country, and the family seemingly panicked and abandoned the castle and town in April. Later the King’s army reoccupied the castle, but while the Parliamentarians prepared to besiege it, the Royalists attacked their stronghold at Monmouth. The Parliamentarians abandoned the siege to relieve Monmouth. By 1645, the Royalists were more or less beaten and Chepstow Castle fell to a token force. During the Second English Civil War, Sir Nicholas Kemeys and 120 men held out against Cromwell’s forces. Eventually, the Parliamentarian artillery breached the walls and the occupants surrendered. However, following the Restoration, Charles II appointed Lord Herbert, the son of William Herbert, as custodian. He kept a garrison at the castle. Chepstow Castle was used as a prison between 1660 and 1680. In 1690, the Crown ordered the castle to be dismantled and its guns taken to defend Chester.
Today, Chepstow is a peaceful but thriving town, and well worth a visit. If you do go, wander around the street a while, and you’ll soon get your eye in for old town walls, old houses and other surprises. I’ve not even started in the old ship yards, iron works and spindle factories – that will have to be another blog. Then visit the Chepstow Museum, which has an eclectic collection of local history based in an old town house that has been a girls school and a hospital. I love these local museums. And of course ound it all up with a visit to The Three Tuns for great beer and a fantastic steak pie. I wonder if I’ll get a free drink out of this?
A Bank Holiday Weekend that is offering something other than rain. Surely this must be a mistake. It always rains on the bank holiday weekend! Not this time according to the weather forecast, but time will tell. It’s Aunty’s birthday weekend and so we ventured out into the wide world. We’ve set up the caravan above Three Cliffs Bay – Aunty’s favourite beach on the Gower. The caravan site is sited on the cliff top over looking the Bay and Aunty has wanted to stay here here for a while. So here we are.
The following are just a few photos taken during a walk down the cliff to the beach and back. Not much text or history this time.
Hay on WyeNestling under the northern flanks of the Black Mountains lies a fascinating small town full of book shops. Hay on Wye is the place to go in search of all things written. A Mecca for bibliophiles. When Aunty suggested we visit I could not refuse. I have some spaces on the bookshelves after a clear out last year. And boy that was a painful process. However there was a stipulation that we “are only going to look and not to buy, remember!”
Hay is another town that we haven’t visited for many years. I think the last time we were here was before Number One Daughter was born, except for a brief pass through when I was walking the Offa’s Dyke Path with the Brother in Law. On the surface it hasn’t changed much. It is still a pretty little town, but there are fewer bookshops now than there used to be. And it’s the second hand bookshops that made Hay famous. It seemed that almost every other shop was full to the ceiling with second hand books, but I suppose with the advent of the Internet and the competition it provides some have closed.
But there are still plenty of books to go around still. And the most famous of them all is still open, even if it has had to expand into films and coffee to continue to bring in the customers. Richard Booth was once the driving force of the second hand book phenomenon that once put Hay onto the map. But he sold up and retired to Germany a few years ago.
It is still a delightful and dangerous shop. Why dangerous? I was threatened with severe physical injury if I bought any books. It is also very easy to loose a couple of hours in a book store I find. On 1 April 1977, bibliophile Richard Booth declared Hay-on-Wye to be an ‘independent kingdom’ with himself as its monarch. A fantastic publicity stunt that has helped the micronation of Hay-on-Wye to develop a healthy tourism industry.
More recently Hay has become famous for it’s annual 10 day literary festival. Conceived around a kitchen table in 1987, it now attracts more than 200,000 visitors. An impressive number to a small town with a population of just 1500 souls. The festival attracts huge names each year, including ex US Presidents like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Now that’s something to boast about. We’ve never been to the Festival, but one day……..maybe.
Like many other Welsh towns, Hay also has a castle. Part mediaeval, part Jacobean and part Victorian. Though sadly in ruins after a fire in 1937 and another one in the 1970’s. Built in the late 12th century by the powerful Norman Lord William de Braose. The castle was sacked by Llewelyn II, the last prince of Wales, in 1233, and rebuilt by Henry III. Centuries of turmoil followed until the 15th century, when the castle passed into the hands of the Beaufort Estates. Castle House, a Jacobean mansion, was built alongside the tower in 1660.
Did I manage to buy a book? Of course I did! And I think I may have got away with it this time.
For a recent series of adventures that saw us tie off another two items on the Welsh 100 list we stayed just outside Llandovery, or Llanymddyfri, in the old county of Carmarthenshire. It is an area we not explored much, having bypassed it by going further west to the coast. But that changed this weekend as we drove along the old drovers road and the Abergwesyn Pass to Tregaron and scrambled up to Ogof Twm Sion Cati.
Llandovery isa corruption of ‘ Llanymddyfri’, meaning ‘Llan ymlith y dyfroedd’ or in English ‘Church enclosure amidst the waters’. Two rivers, the Afon Tywi and Afon Bran, meet just outside town. It is a small town with a population less than 300. But it must once have had the highest ratio of pubs to population of anywhere in Wales. We counted at least 10 pubs, not all still open as pubs having been converted in cafes or restaurants. After saying here a couple of days, it is now one of our favourite little towns. The town is centred on the town square that housed a small market place, town hall and at one time the town goal.
The Town Hall (1857-8) was designed by the architect Richard Kyke Penson. It fairly unusual for Wales, which tend to have very functional artitectrure. It has a courtroom over an open market, in an Italianate style. The building has two storeys with open arcades.
At the rear are police cells with iron grilles and entry to the courtroom (now used as a library) under a clock tower.
The town has a long history stretching back to when the Romans built a fort here between AD50 and 60 as support for their incursion and settlement of this part of Wales. A little further up the road is the only Roman gold mine in the UK – more on this in a letter post.The Normans moved in many years later to try and control the important routes through the valleys to the north and west, when in1116, the Norman Richard Fitz Pons began construction of the motte and bailey, then known as the “castle of Cantref Bychan.” Very soon afterwards Gruffydd ap Rhys, attacked and destroyed the outer bailey. Then followed a period of capture and loss between the Welsh and English.
However,with the interceine manner that the Welsh managed their affairs control of Llandovery Castle not only alternated between the Welsh and the English, but the heirs of theLord Rhys (including Rhys Gryg and Maelgwyn) also fought each other for command of their father’s possessions. Edward I finally gained control of the castle in 1277, and the English continued to control the stronghold until its demise, with the brief exception of a few months in 1282 when Llewelyn Olaf captured the castle.
On the slopes of the castle is a fantastic 16-foot (4.9 m) high stainless steel statue to Llewelyn ap Gruffudd Fychan. Over 600 years ago he had led the army of King Henry IV on ‘a wild goose chase’ under the pretence of leading them to a secret rebel camp and an ambush of Owain Glyndŵr’s forces. English Kings were not known for their tolerance, especially when being led astray by a Welshman and King Henry lost patience with him, exposed the charade and had him half hanged, disemboweled in front of his own eyes, beheaded and quartered – the quarters salted and dispatched to other Welsh towns for public display.
The streets are narrow, and many of the houses are painted brightly in different colours. I love this way of making the town different from the usual dark grey granite of the town further north.
Although the streets can be little narrow in places, it can’t be said that parking is at such a premium that you have to park the car on the garage roof!
This area is a mecca for motorcyclists. One of the cafes attract bikers like a magnet. 30 minutes after taking the photo there were another 15 bikes parked outside. Aunty is just checking that their tax discs are in place!
If you get the chance go and stay. We might even meet up on day.
The weekend beckoned, the caravan was hitched behind the car and Aunty and I headed West. Sounds good, but the weather was not so good. Quite depressing in fact as we left the cloud behind and drove into the rain. The weather forcast apps on the iPhone kept on being optimistic indicating that the sun would shine later. And do you know what? They were right. Beyond Swansea the rain stopped, the clouds lifted and by the time we had unhitched the caravan at Carew the skies were clear. So after a quick cuppa, Aunty decreed we would go to Manorbier and have a look around.
The origins of the name Manorbier as a place name is uncertain. One interpretation has it as the Maenor Pyrr, a holding of land by the 6th Century Abbot of Caldey Island, Pyrrus or Pir. The Abbot is a classic example of how drinking can be bad for you when he drowned in the Abbey fishpond after drinking too much wine.
The Norman knight Odo de Barri was granted the lands of Manorbier, Penally and Begelly in gratitude for his military help in conquering Pembrokeshire after 1103. I’m sure the Welsh weren’t so happy about this though. The first Manorbier Castle was motte and bailey style, with the stone walls being added in the next century by later Normans. Giraldus Cambrensis, son of William de Barri, was born in the village in 1146, and called it “the pleasantest place in Wales”.
The Castile seems to have escaped the almost constant battles between the Welsh and Normans that so many other castles in the Wales seem to have suffered. This may have been due to the links between the de Barri family and the Welsh after the William de Barri married Angharad, granddaughter to Rhys ap Tewdwr the last Prince of South Wales. Their son was Geraldus Cambriensis.
The sun might have been shining but it was still a little breezy!
Across the narrow valley from the castle is St James’ Church. Like many churches in Wales it has a circular church yard. But perhaps the most impressive feature is the high tower dating from around 1270. The rest of the church was renovated by the Victorians – as usual!
Not a bad end to a quick visit, especially as Aunty paid for supper! But that wasn’t the end, it was still light so we headed off to Bosherston Ponds.
After Montgomery the rain cleared and so we made a dash for Powys Castle. However, by the time we got there the rain had returned with a vengeance, bit stopped long enough for us to run from the car to the entrance. The place was heaving with bodies – all alive and getting in my way! But I suppose they were also sheltering form the rain like us.
I managed to get into trouble almost immediately as I took a photo of the horse harness and coach in the entrance to the castle. The lady behind the counter came running out and told me off, even though I wasn’t using a flash. This miffed me a little later as people were taking photos in the house quite happily without being wrestled to the ground by over zealous curators!
In the sun this place is stunning. But on a grey wet day like today it can be a little underwhelming. The castle doesn’t shine as it should and the gardens are unable to make the show that they are capable of. So forgive the photographs. We’ll go back and try again later in the year.
Powys, unlike the castles Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech and nearby Montgomery, which were all built by the English to subdue and rule the Welsh, was the fortress of a dynasty of Welsh princes. In 1286, four years after Edward I’s conquest of Wales, Owain ap Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, the last hereditary prince of Powys, renounced his royal claim title and was granted the title of Baron de la Pole, (i.e. “of the Pool” a reference to Welshpool, formerly called just “Pool” and the location of Powis Castle). The ancient Kingdom of Powys had included the counties of Montgomeryshire, much of Denbighshire, parts of Radnorshire and previously large areas of Shropshire.
Owain’s descendant, an illegitimate son of the last Baron Grey of Powis, sold the lordship and castle to Sir Edward Herbert (d. 1595), second son of Sir William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, in 1579. Sir Edward’s wife was a Roman Catholic and the family’s allegiance to Rome and to the Stuart kings was to shape its destiny for over a century. On 22 October 1644 Powis Castle was captured by Parliamentary troops and was not returned to the family until the restoration of Charles II.
Most of the great Welsh castles were allowed to decay when the medieval wars ended, but Powys survives as a fantastic example of a military stronghold which was preserved and renewed by continual occupation. Its fabric contains architecture of many different periods, beginning with a medieval square keep and stone hall. The most fleeting glimpse of Powys’ mellow red grit stone walls tells us that this stately country house is a place rich in history.
The Castle crowns a rocky ridge, with a particularly steep slope to the south-east, now occupied by formal gardens. A similarly steep slope on the north-west may have been partially in-filled to support buildings. The castle is within easy reach of Welshpool, although, as at Montgomery, direct control of the natural route focus has been sacrificed for strength and siting.
Bank Holiday weekends. What can you say about the weather on Bank Holiday weekends? Relaxing, maybe. Predictable, possibly. Wet miserable and cold – almost certainly! We were optimistic as we drove up to Welshpool yesterday, the sun was shining and the although there were clouds it felt like spring. We had a great wander around Pistyll Rhaeadr. But the rain started in the evening, then the wind got up and started blowing pretty fierce gusts at times. I was glad I had used all the pegs to “nail” down the caravan awning. Saturday morning was wet, cold, dark and pretty miserable. A damn shame as we hoped to go to Powys Castle, but with the rain we decided to postpone this and went to Montgomery instead. And I’m glad we did. Unfortunately the light was pretty awful for photography, and the photos look very flat – I did my best.
The Welsh name for Montgomery is Trefaldwyn, Baldwin’s Town. I think it soundS much better in Welsh, but I’m biased I admit. The town lies less than 2 miles from the border between Wales and England, and as such has played a part in the wars between the two countries as well as in the political machinations of the powerful and ruthless players.
The town was established around a Norman stone castle on a crag, in the early 13th century to control an important ford over the nearby River Severn and replaced an earlier motte and bailey fortification at Hendomen, two miles away. An important supporter of King William I (the Conqueror), Roger de Montgomery, originally from Montgomery in the Pays d’Augein Normandy, was given this part of the Welsh Marches by William and his name was given to the town surrounding the castle.
The Treaty of Montgomery was signed 29 September 1267 in Montgomeryshire, in which King Henry III of England acknowledged Llywelyn ap Gruffudd as Prince of Wales. Montgomery was sacked at the beginning of the 15th century by the Welsh Prince Owain Glyndŵr. At this time, the castle and surrounding estates were held by the Mortimer family (the hereditary Earls of March) but they came into royal hands when the last Earl of March died in 1425. In 1485, King Richard III was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth and the Royal Estates, including Montgomery and its castle, passed into the hands of the new King, Henry VII, the first Tudor king, and a Welshman. The castle was then given to another powerful Welsh family, the Herberts.
During the Civil War, the castle was captured by Parliamentary forces and subsequently slighted (damaged) to remove its military threat. This is perhaps a slight understatement. In order to ensure that the castle couldn’t be used again I would say it was destroyed. And many of the stones were almost certainly used by locals as a quarry for stones to build their own houses.
As a county town, Montgomery prospered, and the consequent buildings give the small town its current character. This part of Wales has a large number of half timbered houses, but for some reason there aren’t many in Montgomery. Well the mystery was solved as we got talking to one of the locals. He explained that as the town prospered and grew richer trading wool and cattle, they rebuilt the front of their houses. But behind the elegant Georgian facades, the original timber farme work was left in place.
Tucked around the corner of the Main Street is a fantastic old fashioned iron mongers. I love these shops, you never know what you might find in them. It even had a petrol pump outside.
The stock range was vast. It was like walking into Aladdins Cave. I love these shops where you can buy anything from a single screw to electric kettles. I couldn’t resist a small tape measure that would fit in my camera bag. Aunty tolerates this collection of seemingly useless items that I hide away, but only if it doesn’t impact on any of her drawers at home. I know my place in life!
Another treat in this fascinating little town was one of the coffee shops. This used to be a grocers, but is now a great little cafe come restaurant. I have to say they prepared one of the best coffees I’ve had in a long time.
The small museum is fantastic, I visited this with Old Man Swain after one of our walks and before we attacked the pub. Housed in the old Temperance House, and run by an elderly couple who allowed us in even though they were just about to close.
Some of the house seem to create an optical illusion without a straight line in sight, and seem to defy gravity.
Harlech Castle. What can I say about it? This is a real and proper castle. One we all imaged a castle should be when we were kids – young or old. Sitting on top of the crag, it seems to grow out of the rock itself, with plunging cliffs on the seaward side, making it very difficult to approach except from landward. Now it broods over the old town of Harlech, with the small granite stone houses almost pushing the castle further towards the edge. Ironically, Harlech means ‘beautiful rock’. Unfortunately the weather today was very cold, dark and windy. Rain was never far away, so the photos don’t do Harlech justice. See if you can spot Aunty in some of the photos – dressed more like an Eskimo than an Easter tourist. We came back two days later when the sun was shining and it was 10C warmer. It’s not difficult to identify which day the photos were taken, but it does explain why some are grey, drab and depressing looking, while others have bright blue sky as the back drop.
Even before the Castle was built by Edward I the area was associated with the legend of Branwen. I’ll cover this in the next blog posting. This is a great and fantastic story, full of Magic, love, betrayal and sacrifice.
Harlech was begun during King Edward I’s second campaign in north Wales. It was part of an “iron ring” of castles surrounding the coastal fringes of Snowdonia, eventually stretching from Flint around to Aberystwyth; a ring intended to prevent the region from ever again becoming a focal point of insurrection and a last bastion of resistance. Following the fall of the Welsh stronghold of Castell y Bere, King Edward’s forces arrived at Harlech in April, 1283, and building work began almost immediately. Over the next six years an army of masons, quarriers, labourers and other craftsmen were busily engaged in construction. In 1286, with the work at its height, nearly 950 men were employed under the superintendence of Master James. The final result was a perfectly concentric castle, where one line of defences is enclosed by another. The final cost of just this one castle was £8,190. OK this may not sound much today, but in reality then it was a Hugh cost. It is impossible to accurately compare medieval and modern prices or incomes. For comparison, £8,190 is around twelve times the annual income of a typical baron of the period.
Harlech was established with a garrison of 36 men: a constable, 30 men, including 10 crossbowmen, a chaplain, a smith, carpenter and stonemason, and Master James was rewarded by being made the constable of Harlech from 1290–93. In 1294, Madog ap Llywelyn began an uprising against English rule that spread quickly through Wales. Madoc was rebelling against the subscription of the Welsh archers into the English army and the draconian control that the English were exerting over the conquered people. Several English-held towns were razed and Harlech, along with Criccieth Castle and Aberystwyth Castle, were besieged that winter. However, The garrison resisted the siege as fresh supplies were sent from Ireland by sea, arriving via Harlech’s water gate, and eventually the uprising was quashed. In the aftermath of the revolt, additional defences were built around the route down to the sea. Further work was undertaken between 1323–24, following the Despenser War; Edward II was threatened in the region by the Mortimer Marcher Lord family, and ordered his sheriff, Sir Gruffuld Llywd, to extend the defences leading up to the gatehouse with additional towers.
This wasn’t the end of Harlech’s involvement in war. In 1400 a revolt broke out in North Wales against English rule, led by Owain Glyndŵr. The reasons for the revolt were many folded and I don’t have the space to go into it here. But Owain is still seen as a hero today but the Welsh. By 1403 only a handful of castles, including Harlech, still stood against the rebels, but the castle was under-equipped and under-staffed to withstand a siege, the garrison having just three shields, eight helmets, six lances, ten pairs of gloves, and four guns. At the end of 1404, the castle fell to Glyndŵr. Harlech became his residence, family home and military headquarters for four years; he held his second parliament in Harlech in August 1405. In 1408 English forces under the command of the future Henry V placed Harlech and its commander, Edmund Mortimer, under siege, conducting a bombardment with cannon, probably destroying the south and east parts of the outer walls. When this failed to take the castle, Henry left John Talbot in charge of the siege and moved on to deal with Aberystwyth Castle. Supplies finally ran short for the defenders, Mortimer and many of his men died of exhaustion, and Harlech fell in February 1409.
In the 15th century, Harlech was involved in the series of civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses that broke out between the rival factions of the House of Lancaster and York. In 1460, following the Battle of Northampton, Queen Margaret of Anjou fled to the castle and between 1461–68 it was held by her Lancastrian supporters, under the command of Dafydd ap Ieuan, against the Yorkist Edward IV. Thanks to its natural defences and the supply route by sea, Harlech held out and as other fortresses fell, eventually became the last major stronghold still under Lancasterian control. The castle became a base for their operations across the region: there were planned operations in 1464, Sir Richard Tunstall mounted attacks from Harlech in 1466 and Jasper Tudor landed there with French reinforcements in 1468, before then raiding the town of Denbigh. Tudors’ arrival caused Edward IV to order William Herbert to mobilise an army, possibly up to 10,000 strong, to finally seize the castle. After a month’s siege, the small garrison surrendered on 14 August. This siege is credited with inspiring the song Men of Harlech.
This still wasn’t the end of Harlech’s involvement with wider conflict and politics engulfing England and Wales. Yet again it was involved in conflict during the English Civil War. Harlech had not apparently been repaired following the 1468 siege, and had become completely dilapidated, with the exception of the gatehouse, which was used for the local assizes. In 1644 Prince Rupert appointed a local Royalist, Colonel William Owen, as the castle’s constable, and Owen was entrusted with repairing the fortifications. A long siege ensued from June 1646 until 15 March 1647, when the garrison of 44 men surrendered to Major-General Thomas Mytton. Ironically after hundreds of years of Welsh resistance and rebellion against English rule Harlech Castle was the last royal fortress to surrender in the war, and the date marked the end of the first phase of the war. The castle was no longer required for the security of North Wales and, to prevent any further use by the Royalists, Parliament ordered its slighting, or destruction. The orders were only partially carried out, however, and the gatehouse staircases were destroyed and the castle rendered generally unusable, but it was not totally demolished. Stone from the castle was reused to build houses in the local town.
UNESCO considers Harlech to be one of “the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe”, and it is classed as a World Heritage site.
There was a lot of work going on around the Castle with the installation of a new bridge direct into the Castle Gatehouse. This should make the approach much more exciting than the old access across the moat. Negotiating the narrow roads in North Wales is a challenge in itself towing a caravan, but my mind boggles at the thought of transporting the four huge lengths of the bridge along these roads. Then to top is all a 100 tonne crane had to be brought in to assemble another 200 tonne crane for lifting the bridge lengths into length one at a time. There’s a short video on how they did it here: http://cadw.wales.gov.uk/about/news/6m-project-bridges-the-gap-at-harlech-castle-for-the-first-time-in-600-years/?lang=en.
Then because the sun was shining on the second visit we had to have a walk along the beach. This is glorious when the sun is out. The sand dunes are majestic, and are now the site of a nature reserve. The beach stretches out ahead of you for miles whether you are looking north or south.