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The Jewel in Edward's Ring of Iron
Caernarvon is the best-preserved castle of King Edward I's ring of iron. It was built to cow the native Welsh into submission. And it worked for a while.
No trip to northwestern Wales would be complete without a visit to this imposing, well-preserved 13 th-century medieval fortress. The impressive stone castle looms majestically over the banks of the river Seiont -- a potent symbol of the area’s history as a stronghold of military and royal power.
With roots reaching back to the Roman Empire, the site served as a Norman motte and bailey castle during the early medieval period. But it only became a true powerhouse in the late 13th century, when King Edward I expanded it and made it the Welsh seat of his formidable court.
The First Prince of Wales
When his son was born at the castle in 1284, Edward created the title Prince of Wales for him, effectively stamping out Welsh royal power in the region and asserting English dominance over Wales. Despite a vibrant local Welsh culture and identity, the site continues to serve to this day as a symbol of British royal power: in 1969, Prince Charles, the current (and 21st) Prince of Wales, celebrated his investiture at the Castle.
It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, alongside the nearby Beaumaris Castle, Harlech Castle and Conwy Castle, which all belong to the “Castles and Town Walls of Edward I” Heritage site in North Wales.
A day trip to the castle from nearby Bangor or other hubs in northwest Wales is all but guaranteed to please visitors of all ages. Whether you have a burgeoning interest in medieval history and architecture, or are just looking for a pleasant half-day excursion, a visit to Caernarvon is both educational and entertaining.Continue to 2 of 3 below.
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Visiting the Castle: A Powerful Encounter With Medieval Wales
Entering the gates of Caernarvon is a humbling experience. Despite having been left unfinished in many places, it’s one of the world’s best-preserved fortified medieval castles. Exploring its sprawling grounds instantly allows you to understand how important medieval Wales was as a hub of military and royal power.
Restored to Past Glories
The castle was badly damaged and pillaged throughout the 17th century. In the 19th century, amid efforts to restore sites of historical importance and significant cultural heritage, it was renovated and restored. Later, in the mid 20th century, modern-day buildings around the castle walls were demolished giving a clearer view of the site, and recreating a sense of architectural coherence. Finally, in 2015 a new entrance “pavilion” was built. What we see today is largely a result of those efforts to restore the site to its former medieval glory.
Architecture and Layout of the Grounds
Roughly plotted in a figure-eight shape, the castle is flanked with a series of polygonal towers designed specifically for military defense and artillery fire. With its moat, dramatic battlements, and unusually colorful stone walls forming recognizable patterns, Caernarvon embodies the arrogance of the Edwardian castle, built to symbolize the dominance of England over Wales.
Interestingly, for all of its grandeur, it was left unfinished. While there’s evidence of plans for several wings of royal accommodations and additional fortified buildings, these were never built. The result is a fortress that appears curiously uneven, even though so much of it remains remarkably intact.
What’s more, much of the original interior site fell into ruin over the centuries, with only the foundations surviving. These include the kitchens, whose remnants remain in the northern section of the site, and the Great Hall on the south side, used for royal entertainment and dining that was quite grandiose in its heyday.
During your visit, make sure to explore the castle’s multiple levels and dark, narrow stone rooms; on clear days, enjoy views over the Seiont river. There are many good photo opportunities from the upper-level bridges connecting the towers.
Kids especially will enjoy poking around the castle’s many nooks and crannies, but should be closely supervised at all times. The staircases are often narrow and slippery, drops can be precipitous, and despite looking a bit like a fairy-tale inspired amusement park, the castle isn’t one.
And Did you Know?
Britain's castles were a Norman innovation, brought across the English Channel by William the Conqueror very soon after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Before then, Britain's castles were much more primitive affairs. 2016 is the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest - a good reason to add this castle to your Norman Conquest Trail itinerary.
An elaborate multimedia presentation, running about 30 minutes and offered in one of the western-facing rooms, proved to be well worth our time. Featuring elaborate animation, visual and sound effects, it vividly narrates the history of the castle and its importance in the Welsh imagination and national identity. It also familiarizes visitors with some of Wales’ most powerful mythologies, including those of the Arthurian variety.
Summer 2016: A Giant Dragon Invades Caernarvon
For travelers with a soft spot for fantasy, summer 2016 at Caernarvon is set to be a fun one, especially for families. An enormous animatronic dragon (the symbol of Wales) is slated to take over the castle walls during the height of the high season. Measuring over 13 feet long and more than six feet wide, the scaly, red-and-black dragon is designed to awe - his nostrils flare smoke and his claws reach out to grab anyone who dares come near.Continue to 3 of 3 below.
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Planning Your Visit to Caernarfon
- Where: Castle Ditch, Caernarvon, Gwynedd LL55
- Open: The castle is open daily throughout the year, but hours vary by season. Last entrance is 30 minutes before closing times.
- Acessibility: The castle entrance can be accessed via a ramp from the street to the main entrance. In addition, the entire lower level of the castle is wheelchair-accessible.
- Parking (paid and free)
- Permanent historical exhibit
- Gift shop
- Multimedia presentation
- Toilets (not wheelchair accessible)
- Admission: There is an entry fee with discounts for students, families, and seniors. Check the visitor page for full information about opening times and costs.
- Visit their website.
By bus and trainCaernarvon, in North Wales, is nine miles from the major coastal city of Bangor and easily reached by local buses from there. Lines 5 and 5X (Arriva) offer daily and weekend service. Lines 5A and 5B, operated by Express Motor Company, also offer service, but mostly on weekdays. The trip takes about 30 minutes each way. See this website for local bus information. The castle is about a 5-minute walk from the town center bus stops.
Bangor itself is well served by trains from London, Chester, and Manchester Piccadilly stations. Check National Rail Enquiries for times and ticket prices and book your tickets direct through Rail Europe.
By carWith so much to see and do in this corner of Wales, including Caernarvon in a motor itinerary makes a lot of sense. The town is on the 487, north of the heart of Snowdonia National Park and west of the Menai Bridge to Anglesey.
Use the AA Route Planner to plan your trip.
And while you're in the area consider including these in your travel itinerary: