Wales has the greatest concentration of castles of any region in the British Isles. For variety, architectural excellence, historical interest and state of preservation the group is perhaps unsurpassed in all Europe and Latin Christendom. This short tour encompasses most of the best of them, from Gwent in the south to Gwynedd in the north, and – it should be inserted here as not the least attractive feature – traverses some exceptionally lovely countryside.
It is a common fallacy to consider castles to be defensive in function. Many are nakedly aggressive, boldly planted on foreign land. Only one of the castles seen on this tour was built by a Welshman; the other nine were built by English invaders. There had been incursions from England even before the Norman conquest, sometimes by rapacious barons acting free-lance, sometimes by armies of the Crown. But the Welsh refused to be subdued and, time and again, having recuperated in their mountain fastnesses, swept down and ousted the invader.
Edward I, the most warlike of English mediaeval monarchs, embarked in 1277 on a campaign of reconquest. Within twenty years, despite setbacks, Wales had lost its independence – forever – and the northern heartland was ringed by new castles, technically as advanced as anything in Europe and the Mediterranean. Craftsmen and labourers were recruited from nearly every county in England, but the master designer was a Savoyard, James of St George, the finest military architect of his generation.
This group of Edwardian castles alone collectively constitutes one of the finest sights mediaeval Britain has to offer. Not only are they wonderfully well preserved, they are immeasurably enhanced by their sites. Each was designed to be provisioned from the sea, so they enjoy the matchless setting of waterfront site and mountainous backdrop.
It is fascinating to see them in the context of five hundred years of military architecture represented in the other castles. But setting is again important. Wales has some of the loveliest countryside in the British Isles. We journey through a landscape of highly picturesque hills, little green fields, plentiful broadleaves and occasional majestic moorland.
At the expense of a couple of castles of note, we have avoided even the fringes of larger towns and cities in favour of countryside, market towns, villages and back roads.
Chepstow. Leave Newport Station (Gwent) at 2.00pm and drive to Chepstow Castle, a massive series of enclosures and towers on the cliffs above the River Wye – the border with England. Immensely impressive, there is work from many periods between the 11th and 17th centuries, the great Norman tower standing comparison with those in London and Colchester. Continue to the delightful market town of Abergavenny; first of two nights here.
Grosmont, Skenfrith, Raglan. ‘The Three Castles’ were built in earth and timber shortly after the Conquest, upgraded in stone a century later and reconstructed c.1200–40 with the latest features. Today we see Grosmont and Skenfrith – relatively small, evocative, ensconced in charming villages. Lunch break in the historic town of Monmouth. Largely 15th-century, Raglan Castle is a beautifully ornamented architectural composition, lavishly equipped with defensive devices, by now obsolete: the triumph of art over warfare.
White Castle, Harlech. Third of the ‘Three Castles’, the impressiveness of White Castle is enhanced by its remote countryside setting (inaccessible by coach, taxis required). Drive 130 miles (with two stops) through the unremitting loveliness of the hilly heart of Wales. Harlech Castle clings to a crag by the sea, a compact concentric type with high walls and towers, one of the great sights of the British Isles. Built 1283–89, architect James of St George, patron Edward I of England. First of two nights near Caernarfon.
Dolbadarn, Caernarfon, Beaumaris. The only native Welsh castle on the tour, Dolbadarn was built in the 13th century to control the route to Snowdonia. Intended as a seat of government, Caernarfon is the greatest of Edward I’s castles, and the high curtain wall and mural towers rising from the estuary’s edge incorporate symbolism evoking his imperial aspirations. Cross the Menai Strait to Anglesey. Beaumaris is the last of James of St George’s constructions and, in terms of its defensive apparatus, the most sophisticated.
Conwy. Walk atop the walls encircling Conwy, the town founded by Edward I. The castle is one of the great achievements of mediaeval military architecture, and its curtain walls and many mural towers survive intact. The tour finishes here, and the coach drives to Llandudno Junction railway station (5 minutes) two or three times between 12.30 and 3.00pm to meet trains booked by participants. There is more to see here, including Britain’s finest surviving Elizabethan town house.
Dr Marc Morris
Historian and broadcaster with a specialisation in the Middle Ages. He studied and taught history at the universities of London and Oxford, and his doctorate on the 13th-century earls of Norfolk was published in 2005. He presented the highly acclaimed television series Castle and wrote its accompanying book. His other books include The Norman Conquest and A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, his latest release is King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £1,240. Single occupancy: £1,410.
Hotel accommodation; private coach throughout; breakfasts and 3 dinners with wine; all admissions; all tips; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
The Angel Hotel, Abergavenny, a former Georgian coaching-inn, now a 3-star hotel with comfortable rooms and excellent restaurant. Ty’n Rhos, near Caernarfon, Snowdonia, a charming, country house hotel in a tranquil and attractive rural setting.
There are many steps, much uneven paving, muddy paths and quite a lot of walking. This tour should not be attempted by anyone with any difficulties with everyday walking and stair climbing. Average distance-by coach per day: c. 71 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.