Castle Conwy was completed in four and a half years, which, I hear, is astonishingly quick. As well as building a massive castle, Edward fortified the town of Conwy during those years, and Conwy is now the most complete example of a fortified town and castle left in Britain. There are at least twenty-one towers along the walls, and the castle itself has another eight. It is surrounded on three sides by water.
To build the castle took an army of craftsmen, as many as 1,500. The names of many of the master builders were recorded and are still known today, though I was not able to meet any of their families while I was there. When the castle was built, it was limewashed, and must have stood as a shining white landmark, visible for miles, though now it is sombre grey stone.
Unfortunately, the castle is no longer in use, and many parts of it have fallen into ruin. It is built on a natural high point of rock which itself was quite imposing as I approached. The roofs of many towers are missing, and barricades have been erected to keep the many visitors from wandering off the edge of a ledge. From the top of the highest tower I was able to look down into the courtyard and see the layout of the entire castle, including the way its walls extended into the walls of the town. There were also stairs down into the areas below the castle. As I climbed one of the towers I was able to stop at each floor and look down into it. The floors are all missing, so I was able to see further down each time I climbed another flight.
At the base of one of the towers was a holding pit for prisoners. Apparently prisoners would be tossed in here through a trapdoor in the floor above. Once they were in, there was no light and no way out except through that one trapdoor. When I heard of this, I was glad that I was not one of the enemies of King Edward.
Though I had thought the castle deserted I found out that I was wrong. When I climbed one of the other towers I was greeted by a young mother who was most disturbed that I might be there to bother her children. After I had talked to her for a few minutes, she seemed more willing to accept my presence and allowed me to explore the top of the tower, provided I did not come too close to the nest she had built. Even so long after King Edward's men have gone, the seagulls have recognized this castle as a worthy residence.
The second castle I visited, Caernarfon, is the most famous castle in Wales. Started at the same time as Conwy, it was not finished until 50 years later. It was the show-piece of the castles Edward built. Parts of it are still in use today, and it is the site of the investiture of the Prince of Wales. It is a picturesque place. Looking out from the high towers, on three sides I could see the water, with the harbour full of boats. Looking down into the centre of the castle, I saw green, well-cut lawns full of people enjoying the rare sunny weather. Many seemed to have come merely to stroll and picnic, rather than view the castle.
Being a stranger, however, I found myself compelled to explore as much of the castle as my legs would allow. I walked the courtyard from end to end, and I would guess that Caernarfon is about twice the size of Conwy. From one end of the courtyard I heard music. I investigated and found an underground room in which a lady was sitting quietly, playing a harp. She paid no attention to me. Not knowing whether she wanted to be disturbed, nor even if she and I spoke the same language, and not wanting to stop the music, I did not interrupt her.
The grounds of Caernarfon are much more cared for than the grounds of Conwy, and the castle has the definite feel of being still in use, though not for defensive purposes. There are comfortable benches placed at convenient places all over the courtyard. I can attest to their comfort as I sat on one of them, watching the children playing, to give my legs a chance to rest before I explored the rest of the castle.
After a while one of the children came running over to me and said something, presumably in Welsh. I smiled at him and he smiled back, but I had no idea what he wanted, and he ran off before I could try my few words of his language.
Then I wandered in and out of several rooms, up and down many stairs, and generally explored a large portion of the castle, though I feel sure there were many parts which I missed. I found a defensive covered passage within the walls, and was able to walk almost the length of the castle undercover and alone.
As the afternoon drew to a close I decided that it was time to get back on the road. Soon I would have to find a place to stay, and then find out how to cross to the magical Isle of Anglesey, which, from here, I could see clearly across the channel.
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