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Harlech Castle

Visited August 2014

Location Harlech, Gwynedd
Entrance Fee Yes
Railway Station Nearby Yes-Harlech
Parking Yes
Facilities Toilets, Gift Shop


One of Edward I's 'Iron Ring' of castles designed to control the troublesome welsh lands, Harlech is a magnificent example of castle design.






At the time of our visit, a new visitor centre was being built next to the castle, so the old car park had gone, and all cars were directed to the beach car park with a shuttle bus linking the two sites. However, we did not see the shuttle bus at all, it seemed to be quite 'flexible' with the published timings, so we ended up walking from the car park, a fifteen minute journey, including the last part which was up a steep hill- much whinging and whining ensued, mainly from Mum!


Going back to Edward's time, there would have been no need for the long walk, as the castle was built up against the river estuary, meaning it could be supplied by boats. There was a stairway leading down to the landing stage, all of which would have been heavily defended during times of siege. The river has now receded, leaving the stairway, known as 'the way from the sea', obsolete. As well as the side built against the water, the castle has steep cliffs on two other sides, making it almost impenetrable.  This site was specifically chosen for that purpose, and the concentric design further increased the strength of the defences. This was all the work of Edward's renowned castle architect, Master James of St George. He lived at the castle, started in 1283, overseeing the work until its completion in 1290. There is an exhibition at the castle about the building of Harlech and the work of Master James , including a rare drawing of Edward and Master James together.





The castle was designed to easily withstand attacks from the Welsh, and could also withstand a siege as long as its supply route on the seaward side was maintained. However in 1401 Owain Glyndwr managed to take the castle after his French allies blocked the sea route and he attacked from the east side. Glyndwr held the castle for two years before the King's forces took it again.


Probably the most famous action at the castle was during the Wars of the Roses. It was held for the Lancastrian side but in 1461 the Yorkist army began a siege which lasted an incredible seven years, making it the longest siege in British history. The song 'Men of Harlech' was inspired by this event, and is still used today as a regimental march by Welsh regiments of the British army. Strangely there are very few references to the song at the castle- I imagined that the connection between the two would be heavily exploited, but there was very little information about the origins of the song on display at the castle. Perhaps the stewards have just heard it enough times!






A visit to the castle is very enjoyable, and starts with entering through the massive gatehouse on the eastern side, which was once the home of Master James, the castle builder. He was clearly taking no chances as the gatehouse itself has two towers each side, three portcullis' and seven murder holes for boiling oil. However the imposing look of the gatehouse on the outside gives way to large windows and a sweeping staircase, which was more decorative than defensive, once you get to the inside wall. The gatehouse complex was mainly residential, with accommodation for the King on the top floor. Once inside the inner ward, a lot of the buildings were domestic in use, including a bake house, several chapels and a granary.


As the castle is very much still intact, it is possible to walk around much of the surviving wall walks. They are reasonably wide, but are surrounded by very low walls, they would not stop a person falling over the edge, especially if they tripped. So be warned and be careful if you take children up there! The gatehouse tower is also accessible, with amazing views from the top- I actually found it easy to climb up the tower steps and despite my fear of heights I was fine at the top, so either I am getting better at tolerating heights or this tower is not too scary!


The castle is not  massive, for example the whole of the castle could fit inside just the courtyard of Pembroke Castle, but it is big enough to still give visitors enough to see. We spent about 1 1/2 hours here, some of the time playing at trying to invade the castle from the eastern side.  Each time we tried one of us ended up getting pretend shot by an imaginary archer up on the battlements. There was just no way in even for a brave rabble of castle explorers!


Once you have finished exploring the castle there are plenty of facilities in the town of Harlech, plus the beach which seemed very popular on a hot day.






More info:  CADW Harlech Castle

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