Do you love castles? If so, you should consider North Wales as a destination. Why is that? Because of the Iron Ring, perhaps the most ambitious castle building project in history. Built to subdue the Welsh, the second phase of the Iron Ring was built right before cannons were invented essentially rendering Medieval castles obsolete.
As such, the four castles of the second batch, all built by the same architect (James of St. George d’Esperanche) represent the castle builder’s art at its best, culminating in the sadly unfinished Beaumaris.
On top of that, the four castles–and a bunch of lesser forts –are close enough together that you can devote a week to castle-spotting. Also part of the project was the town walls of Caernarfon and Conwy. Here are the four castles of the Iron Ring that you cannot miss!
Conwy (or Conway) is both the castle and the medieval town built next to it. Conwy was a planned, colonial settlement, designed to bring English people and culture into the heart of wild North Wales. Conwy was the most expensive of the four late phase castles and sits on a narrow rocky outcrop. The castle is in excellent condition, with most of the stonework intact, though, the wooden parts have long since gone. The limitations of the outcrop cause the castle to be long and thin, and it lacks concentric walls. The rock made for enough extra defense. The castle’s purpose was to protect a natural harbor, hence it’s location at the shore, tucked into a valley.
While in Conwy you can walk the town walls, contemporary with the castle. Check out the suspension bridge by the castle, of much more recent vintage but built with crenelated towers so it would blend in. Hikers can climb up to the older Deganwy Castle, which Edward I allegedly took one look at and decided not to use. Although Deganwy is in ruins, it gives visitors a great view of the area.
The nearby Victorian-era resort of Llandudno is also worth a visit—and makes a great base of operations, with boutique hotels and quirky bed and breakfasts as well as classic hotels.
Pro tip: Avoid driving into Conwy itself. There is very little parking, and the roads are extremely narrow.
Caernarfon castle with its grandiose exterior seems to have been built to impress and intimidate the locals. The harbor side of the castle has two lines of colored stone which serve no purpose other than decoration. The towers? Polygonal, rather than round. Many consider Caernarfon to be the most spectacular of the castles.
Unlike at Conwy, Edward I did not move the site of the castle —there had been a fortress on the site since Roman times.
Caernarfon is also the castle where Edward famously gave the Welsh a “prince who spoke no English” –his infant son. This is the origin of the title of Prince of Wales and Caernarfon is still, technically, the “seat” of the prince. The castle is occasionally used for ceremonial purposes, including the Queen’s Balcony (where Prince William was presented, although the tradition was not followed for his oldest son), and is still used for the investiture of a new Prince of Wales.
While in Caernarfon:
Caernarfon is close to Snowdonia, where it is possible to go hiking and horseback riding and “pony trekking” which is a grand tradition in this part of the world. Steam trains occasionally run along the main line through North Wales, and the station is a great place to observe. You can also take a boat tour. Or, if you are not done with fortresses, go to Segontium Roman Fort to check out the ruins there.
Even in its unfinished state Beaumaris, the last of the Iron Ring to be built is quite something to see. Built on a completely flat site, the architect was able to demonstrate just how you build a castle when there’s nothing in the way (or to help you). In fact, Beaumaris is pretty much in the dictionary next to “Late Medieval castle.” It’s considered technically perfect.
It was never finished because Edward I ran out of money…and by the time there was more money available, the age of the great Medieval castles was over. The walls should have been quite a bit taller, giving the castle a bit of a squat look. But it’s still spectacular in its own way.
While near Beaumaris:
The Isle of Anglesey is quite different, geographically, from North Wales. It is flatter and is known for its beautiful beaches – if you want a day on the beach, pick any of them and you will do great. You can also check out a number of stone age tombs (don’t worry, none of them are known to be haunted). The last refuge of the druids, Anglesey shows signs of hundreds of years of continuous human occupation.
On the southern side of Snowdonia, Harlech Castle is a bit further away from the others. It has concentric walls and was put together faster, and cheaper, than any other castle. If you’ve heard the rugby song “Men of Harlech”– this is that Harlech and the siege during the War of the Roses proves that it was built to take a beating. The castle used to be right on the sea, but the sea has receded, leaving it and its supply routes high and dry. A new visitor center and bridge have greatly improved accessibility.
While in Harlech:
Royal St. David’s golf club is close to Harlech if you want to work on your handicap. Other than that, this part of North Wales is a place for trains. The Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways are well worth a visit, but there are others, including some of the famous “Little Trains” of Wales– former mining trains that run scaled-down trains on narrow gauge tracks. The Ffestiniog itself is the oldest rail country still operating and is also narrow gauge.
Bring rain gear. The weather in North Wales is unpredictable and can be quite wet even in July and August. July and August are peak times, but early September (right after the kids go back to school) can be a great time to visit. Still, you can expect to be rained on, and the castle ruins are open to the elements.
The castles are somewhat disabled accessible, but obviously climbing the towers requires that your knees be in decent condition. Access is via steep spiral staircases. However, even those in wheelchairs can access the courtyard areas. Be aware that Caernarfon has no disabled restrooms. (Also, foreign travelers to the UK should know that many disabled toilets require a special key to access, which has to be requested in advance).
Only Harlech Castle has a cafe, but picnicking is allowed at the other sites.
It is recommended to devote a full day to each of the four castles, as there is a lot to explore. If you get done, check out the other visitor tips provided.
If you want to see the work of one of the best castle architects and appreciate welsh strongholds at their finest, you should tour the Iron Ring.