WALES is noted as the country with the highest concentration of castles in the world, a symbol of its military subjugation but also of its own internal wars over the centuries. You’d certainly struggle not to trip over a handful on any visit, there being more than 600 of them dotted nationwide. Some cast an overbearing medieval shadow over a town’s streets, while the ghostly silhouettes of others stand tantalisingly on the horizon beckoning the by-passer into their boudoirs.
Most of the better known edifices were constructed by invaders to quell Welsh dissent, including English monarch Edward I’s infamous ‘Ring of Steel’ series of imposing structures. However many of the native castles offer a tantalising glimpse at the country’s medieval struggle to keep hold of its identity. They are mostly in the north and south west, as the south east fell to the Norman invaders very rapidly, with the local rulers slow to react to the perils, and it’s the Normans’ castles that you’ll likely see.
One of the more striking examples location-wise of a native castle is Castell Dinas Bran, the substantial remains of which teeter menacingly like rotting teeth on a prominent hilltop overlooking Llangollen. It’s a lung-bursting but well worthwhile walk along a well-maintained path to the top, where the views are similarly breath-taking. Another bonus is that you get in for free.
Built by Gruffydd ap Madog, prince of the ancient kingdom of Powys Fadog, it was only briefly occupied prior to his death in 1269. When it came under attack from invading Norman forces in 1277, realising their situation was hopeless its defenders razed it to the ground rather than let it fall into the enemy’s hands. It was an ominous harbinger of the fate that awaited the nation. Just five years later Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last prince of Wales, would meet his death at the hands of English soldiers.
Dinefwr Castle near Llandeilo (pronounce Dinefwr as Dean-eh-voor), was in the 12th century virtually the country’s de facto capital. According to tradition it was built by Rhodri Mawr, and was the seat of power of Hywel Dda in the 10th century. It was from where he introduced in a codified set of Welsh laws that was ground-breaking in its equal treatment of his citizens, including allowing women to divorce their husbands.
It was later to be the power base of Rhys ap Gruffydd, from where he reigned over his kingdom of Deheubarth. But his tentacles of control would, at the zenith of his powers, extend to most of Wales.
He built a culturally-aware nation, with poets and minstrels idolised, and organised an event in 1176 in the Norman-built Cardigan Castle still seen as the precursor to today’s National Eisteddfod. His squabbling sons threw away his kingdom’s stability and relative wealth as they fought bitterly and bloodily to gain the upper hand on his death in 1197. Family, eh?
The castle today stands in the Dinefwr Park National Nature Reserve, a stunning 800 acre estate owned by the National Trust. It features a number of parkland walks, a stunning fountain garden, deer roaming wild, and the extremely rare and ancient White Park breed of horned cattle, the ancestors of which were munching merrily at Dinefwr at the time of Hywel Dda. Admission charges apply.
Less than four miles from Dinefwr near the village of Trap, at the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, the casual visitor might be at first astounded to come across Carreg Cennen castle. Although nowhere near as well-known as places such as Caernarfon or Caerphilly, there can be no other castle in the country with a more spectacular setting. Perched on a high craggy limestone outcrop called Carreg Cennen that stands forlornly in rolling farmland, it feels almost that Rapunzel herself is still waiting to be rescued within its walls.
The present structure was largely built by John Giffard, who was gifted the castle by Edward I in reward for his role as commander of the detachment of English troops that killed Llywelyn II near Builth Wells in 1282. But there can be little doubt of its Welsh roots, having been built and maintained by Rhys ap Gruffydd’s dynasty in the 12th century, although frequently changing hands within that dynasty.
Access is gained through a proper working farm that welcomes visitors to experience rural life, and features rare breeds, as well as a shop and café in a converted barn. Access charges apply to the castle grounds, which also feature a permanent interpretive exhibition.
Ewloe Castle, virtually on the modern Welsh-English border in the north east, nestles unassumingly in a cocoon of leaves in a beautiful wooded corner of Wepre Park within easy walking distance of Connah’s Quay. Believed to have been built around 1210 by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, its distinctive D-shaped tower is an architectural feature peculiar to Welsh-built castles, unsurprisingly nowadays referred to as a Welsh Tower. There’s no charge for access.
Wepre Park today is a wooded country park of some 160 acres once owned by the Bishop of St Asaph, and features a visitor centre, woodland walks, sports facilities, and an outdoor gym. But these serene woods was the site of a bloody massacre in 1157, known as the Battle of Ewloe. The forces of Owain ap Gruffudd ambushed and routed a much larger detachment of some 30,000 English soldiers, personally led by Henry II, who was lucky to get out alive.
Whilst most Welsh castles were built as military fortifications, Llawhaden Castle – just off the A40 near Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire – was largely built with a different purpose in mind. It was erected as five star accommodation for the well-heeled bishops of the city of St David’s, although some fair distance by medieval standards from the city itself and its imposing cathedral.
Set amid rolling farmland, it offers an unusual architectural mix of the military and the decorative, a well-defended plush haven for some of the richest people around at the time. Building began in 1115 at Bishop Bernard’s behest, but it was extensively re-constructed in the 14th century to include private apartments, guest rooms, gatehouse, and quarters for a defensive force of soldiers. Access is free.
Castell y Bere (pronounced roughly as kas-telh uh bay-ray) in Llanfihangel-y-Pennant, in south west Gwynedd, on the other hand, was most definitely a military construction. Set on a valley floor approached by a narrow lane, past the inland chough colony on a rocky hill known as Craig yr Aderyn, one might question whether this was a poorly-chosen site that was rather difficult to defend. It’s believed that a beacon would be lit on a watch tower on the 258m-high summit of Craig yr Aderyn to warn of any approaching perils.
Construction work started in 1221 under the auspices of Llywelyn the Great, as much to defend his kingdom of Gwynedd from other Welsh kingdoms as to ward off English invaders. It was taken by Edward I’s men in 1282, but besieged by Welsh leader Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294 and burnt.
What remains though is an impressively brooding memorial to a savage time. The very quietness and solitude of the area today, interrupted only by the cawing of the choughs and the bleating of sheep, would be in sharp contrast to the sounds of warfare that once surrounded it. Access is free.
Look closely up at the forbidding walls of Criccieth Castle from the roadway beneath and you’ll still to this day see scorch marks. They’re testament to a fateful night in 1404 when Owain Glyndŵr’s men captured the castle and razed its wooden elements to the ground.
It had been in English hands since 1283, having been taken by Edward I’s forces as he tightened his grip on the north of Wales, but was originally built by Llywelyn the Great. The English crown however had extended and modified the castle’s defences in the intervening century or so.
The castle stands on a prominent rocky hill overlooking the majestically wide sweep of Tremadog Bay, where dolphins can often be spotted dancing in its twinkling azure waters. Admission charges apply, but includes admission to a shop, café and interpretive centre.
Among several other native castles that beg your inspection are: Castell Dolbadarn at the foot of Snowdon in Llanberis; the impressive Castell Dolwyddelan in the Conwy Valley; the remains of the 13th century castle at Caergwrle near Wrexham; Castell Dolforwyn at Abermiwl near Newtown; and the very early example of a Welsh stone construct at Newcastle Emlyn.