North Wales matches the Loire Valley for the sheer number of castles - but Wales wins on variety! Martin Pilkington suggests five of the best.
Conwy Castle, image courtesy of Visit Wales, Crown copyright
Conwy Castle vies with Caernarfon to be the most magnificent castle in North Wales, which is saying something. Atop a stone outcrop with the Conwy estuary to one side and the smaller Afon Gyffin another, its eight steadfast towers, two fortified gateways and battlemented curtain walls are in a remarkably good state of preservation. That backdrop makes it easy for any visitor with imagination to travel back in time to the days when Edward I made his temporary home in the inner ward’s private chambers, and prayed in the royal chapel.
Standing on the battlements your eyes are drawn away from the castle itself to Telford’s suspension bridge and the walled town, and the more distant breathtaking views - the sea in one direction, mountains the other.
Penrhyn Castle - the exterior of the Library and the passage leading to the Keep with the imposing round Tower at the corner. A creeper in red autumnal foliage brightens the walls.
From the sublime to what could be – but isn’t – ridiculous. On Bangor’s eastern edge, Penrhyn might be called a mock castle, given the bulk of the Norman-style building dates from the 1820s and 1830s, though a spiral staircase remains from its medieval predecessor. Ground floor windows evidence domesticity not defence were the architect’s priorities, and similar home comforts enhance its charm: a walled garden and lovely informal gardens add to the fairy tale atmosphere conveyed by the high keep and the Sleeping Beauty tower that flanks it.
Penrhyn is cared for by the National Trust, who have it in fine enough order to accommodate a queen again, as it once did Victoria. The four-ton slate bed she slept in is one of the castle’s many treasures, the greatest perhaps Rembrandt’s painting Catrina Hooghsaet.
At Chirk Castle, another National Trust property, visitors can enjoy three for the price of one. Within a striking medieval fortress there are lavish and intriguing interiors and collections to be explored, the whole surrounded by elegant 18th century gardens.
The four splendid drum towers and sturdy walls mean there’s no mistaking the military might of a castle built to dominate the Marches and control the meeting point of the Dee and Ceiriog rivers. Its rooms vary in decor from the 17th century to the 1920s, a veritable library of aristocratic style, but it may well be the vast park and gardens that stay in the memory longest, though with over 480 acres to explore it really requires more than one visit to take them all in. Highlights of the park include a section of Offa’s Dyke, an 18th century ha-ha, wooded pleasure grounds, and perfect velvet lawns.
Aerial view Flint Castle (CD34) North Castles Historic Sites, courtesy of Welsh Assembly Government (Crown Copyright)
Flint was the first of Edward I’s ‘iron ring’ of colonising castles in Wales, a day’s march from Chester as he sought to establish control area by area. It was built to a plan – square, with a separate keep and three corner towers – that his architects never used again.
The property is under Cadw’s wing, and though it definitely qualifies as ruined thanks to the actions of Cromwell’s forces when they captured it in 1647, most parts of it are open to the public – and access is free. The round tower is an impressive sight, the walls at its base some 23 feet thick, and there is something to be said for the atmosphere that ruination has bestowed on the site, its eeriness helped by the Dee’s sands stretching out miles towards the Wirral before it.
Flint Castle, Castle St, Flint CH6 5PF
Gwydir Castles Historic Sites, Crown copyright, Visit Wales
Gwydir, manorial splendour
When Gwydir Castle was constructed in about 1500 the Welsh were rulers rather than rebels, Henry VII born in Pembroke. It was one of Henry’s supporters, Meredith ap Ieuan ap Robert, who built the place, or rebuilt it, a manor house having stood on the site for a century and more. Strictly speaking it’s not a true castle but a fortified manor house, but as it’s called a castle and is a wonderful building it merits inclusion in this company.
Gwydir is privately owned by Peter Welford and Judy Corbett, who have restored and furnished it sympathetically and authentically, their greatest coup the repurchase 20 years ago of Stuart era panels sent to America by previous owners. The 10-acre grounds are Grade I listed, famed for their formal Tudor gardens and ancient yews. Gwydir is noted too for its peacocks – and reputedly its ghosts.