Power and might: visiting Caernarfon

If stones had a voice, the walls of Caernarfon Castle wouldn’t just speak – they’d bellow. This is a muscular monster of a fortress, built by the medieval English to tighten their grip on Wales. Happily, over the years, we’ve grown to rather like it.

Show of power

Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon Castle, Snowdonia
You’re a powerful English king in the prime of life and you want to build a bit of boulder bling to show the Welsh you mean business. What do you do? If you’re Edward I, you commission an Iron Ring of castles – a medieval warning to toe the line.

Edward built Caernarfon Castle in the 1280s, at roughly the same time as two of his other blockbusters, Harlech and Conwy. The cost of this show of might was colossal – a good 90 per cent of his nation’s annual income. He was a cultured, wealthy ruler and he wanted to be sure everyone knew it.

Master architecture

Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon Castle, Snowdonia
He didn’t just hire any old team of builders – he brought in Jacques de Saint-Georges d’Espéranche from Savoy near Lake Geneva, the master military architect of the age. The sturdy walls and octagonal towers of Caernarfon Castle were decorated with bands of different coloured limestone and sandstone, the interior boasted murals by the artist who also decorated Westminster Hall, and there was glass in the windows. The castle also featured state-of-the-art comforts such as bathrooms, toilets and running water.

But its main function was to boldly impress and intimidate, striking a hammerblow into the hearts of any locals who dared question his authority. The main King’s Gate was designed to be defended by a drawbridge and no less than six portcullisses, plus arrow loops, spy holes and murder holes, through which deadly substances and objects could be hurled down onto attackers.

Still a menace

Aerial view of Caernarfon Castle and town

Caernarfon Castle, Snowdonia
Today, this English-built castle is one of Wales’ most prized architectural treasures. As you approach, it’s easy to imagine how menacing it must have appeared in medieval times. Commanding the mouth of the River Seiont, it dominates the small town of Caernarfon, now a web of 17th and 18th century streets enclosed by medieval stone walls.

Once inside, you can’t fail to be struck by the scale of the structure, much of which is intact. You’re free to roam around, admiring the view of Caernarfon from the lofty Eagle Tower, and clambering up and down spiral staircases to gaze down at the grassy central area where Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in 1969.

Celts and Romans

Aerial view of the remains of Segontium Roman Barracks with Caernarfon town and Castle in the background

Segontium Roman Barracks with Caernarfon Castle in the background, Snowdonia
Caernarfon’s historic flavour continues out of town. The region, which has been inhabited since Celtic times, was grabbed by the Romans in the late 70s AD. On a hilltop east of the castle are the remains of a Roman fort, Segontium, founded around 77AD and designed to hold around a thousand infantrymen. It was occupied for around three centuries. The layout of many of the buildings can still be seen.

For something completely different, head out to the leafy haven of GreenWood Forest Park, three miles northeast of town. It’s an outdoor adventure park with an eco-friendly rollercoaster, boat rides, archery, zipwires, treehouses and a playbarn. Kids love it.

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