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Travelogue Wales 1995

Adventures in Castle Hunting

by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Wales 1995: Stratford-Upon-Avon, Betws-y-Coed, and Wiltshire. Lots of adventures in Wales with a slice of England on either side. Unfortunately I am missing photographs for some of the places we visited. My favorite parts of the trip and sites are hyper-linked in the itinerary below. For some of these sites I have substituted photographs from other trips or used guidebook photos. As is the case with most of my earlier essays, you will find better quality photographs by clicking on the links leading to the site's individual pages.

Places Visited:

Part I: England: Stratford-Upon-Avon → Wilmcote → Henley-in-Arden → Packwood House → Baddesley Clinton → Kenilworth Castle

Charlecote Park → Chipping Campden → Drover's Hill → Broadway → Sudeley Castle → Snowshill Manor → Warwick Castle

Lord Leycester's Hospital → Worcester Cathedral → Gloucester Cathedral →  Berkeley Castle → Bourton-on-the-Water → Part II: North Wales

Llangollen → Castell Dinas Bran → Plas Newydd → Valle Crucis Abbey → Eliseg's Pillar → Betws-y-Coed → Snowdonia → Beaumaris Castle

Conwy Castle → Snowdonia Mountains →  Dolbadarn Castle → Bodnant Gardens → Denbigh Castle → St Asaph Cathedral → Dolwyddelan Castle

Castell y Bere → Harlech Castle → Criccieth Castle → Flint Castle → Ewloe Castle → Pontcysyllte Aqueduct → Offa's Dyke → Snowdonia Hike

Rug Chapel → Conwy Falls → Tretower Castle → White Castle → Raglan Castle → Part III: England: Wiltshire → Avebury → Stonehenge

Salisbury Cathedral → Castle Combe → Malmesbury Abbey → Lacock Abbey & Town → West Kennett Long Barrow

Part I: England: Stratford-Upon-Avon

We returned to England and Wales in 1995, our third trip to Britain in four years. This was another 2-week holiday that began with 5 nights in Wilmcote just above Stratford-upon-Avon, 7 nights in Betws-y-Coed, Wales, and a final 3 nights in Marlborough near the Salisbury Plain. It was time to visit the Cotswolds and Wiltshire in order to broaden our horizons a bit. I had purchased a video camera for the trip, and therefore didn't take as many photographs as on our previous excursions. I also think I may have broken my camera somewhere along the way because the photos just seem to stop with no explanation. Fortunately the videos I took survive and I've been able to reconstruct the trip using these, along with my fading memories.

We flew from Baltimore to London, Gatwick, picked up our rental car and headed north towards Stratford via the M40. It took us about three hours to get there. Driving long distances after an overnight flight is always challenging, due primarily to the time difference. We arrived in Stratford around lunch time, parked the car and started exploring the town, stopping first at the Stratford-upon-Avon canal. It was a busy Saturday and the canal was full of colorful narrowboats docked along the pier, and people feeding the ducks and swans swimming nearby. We encountered a group of Morris Dancers performing near the canal with their colorful costumes, handkerchiefs, and bells around their ankles. We had no idea what this was all about, but soon learned that it's a form of traditional English folk dancing. OK. Their the execution and choreography was actually quite good, although it still seemed a bit strange. We then headed for the city center and began seeing lots of handsome Tudor-style buildings along the way. It was early afternoon so we found a pub and enjoyed a quick lunch and a pint before continuing. 


Following lunch we continued exploring the town. We began by seeing the ornate Shakespeare Memorial Fountain (and clock) near the city center. This large Gothic clock tower, surrounded by a fountain, was established in 1887 in honor of Queen Victoria's jubilee. Impressive, but a bit over-the-top and not exactly in character with the town's Tudor atmosphere. Getting back to Tudor England, we saw the Harvard House on the High Street, and Hall's Croft, another lovely period building that was once owned by William Shakespeare's daughter, Susanna Hall, wife of Dr. John Hall. Here the facade of the building was adorned with purple Wisteria in full bloom. Next we viewed Stratford's Guildhall, a 16th-century building that was used for assemblies and as a meeting place for the local town council. This is also that place were traditionally William Shakespeare went to school and wrote his first works. We walked by Anne Hathaway's Cottage, a 15-century thatched cottage that was the childhood home of Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway.  We would visit here later in the week. Next it was on to Holy Trinity Church, set in a beautiful location overlooking the River Avon. The original building is said to have dated from 1210 and was built on the site of a Saxon monastery. Of course, the church is most famous for its association with the Shakespeare family. William Shakespeare was baptized here in 1564, and buried here in 1616. His impressive funerary monument has has to be one of the most famous in Britain. Shakespeare himself lies next to the grave of his wife Anne. The church also features several large stained glass windows at the east and west ends, 15th-century seats in the chancel with religious, secular and mythical carvings, and a large 19th-century pipe organ. There is no photography allowed inside, for obvious reasons, as the church receives about 200,000 visitors a year. We walked around the outside of the church and the graveyard afterwards. Our last stop for the afternoon was the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where we had reserved seats for a play later that week featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company. Afterwards we left Stratford and headed to our accommodations for the next 5 nights.

Below: Hall's Croft and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Wilmcote is a small, pretty village about 3 miles northwest of Stratford. It is mentioned in the  Domesday Book of the late 11th century. It has associations with Shakespeare as it was the home of William Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden. Her house and Farm Museum are one of the main attractions here. We had booked a 5-night stay at lovely Pear Tree Cottage, a B&B just across the way from the Mary Arden House. According to the cottage's website:

"The Cottage itself was built in the mid 16th century as a Yeoman farmer's dwelling and over the centuries has seen the effects of changes made by Georgian, Victorian and finally twentieth century owners, all of which have added to its great character and period charm. Recent investigations into the Arden Estates show that PEAR TREE COTTAGE once belonged to William Shakespeare's parents, Mary (nee Arden) and John Shakespeare, who inherited it from Robert Arden - Mary's father. They mortgaged the property in 1578 and forfeited it, by order of the Chancery Court in 1597 for failure to repay the loan."

Our room was located on the 2nd floor with a lovely view of a green field with grazing cattle and the Mary Arden House across the lane. The room was a decent size, comfortable and had an en-suite bathroom. Perfect! The public rooms featured antique furniture, fresh flowers, beamed ceilings and flagstone floors in the sitting and dining rooms. Outside there was a small garden with a cafe table to relax and enjoy the cottage grounds. Our hosts for the week were Ted and Margaret Mander, a lovely, friendly couple who provided us with some helpful advice during our stay. We enjoyed breakfast and coffee here every day. We spent the rest of the day relaxing, walking around the village, and just soaking up the peaceful countryside. We had dinner at a local pub a bit later before retiring for the night.

Later in the week we visited the Mary Arden House (or houses) and Farm. The house and farm are set up as a working Tudor farm and are grade I listed buildings of significant historical value. The oldest building has been dated to 1514, and the houses together represent several different building eras. We toured the inside of the houses which feature a collection of period pieces, including a 16th-century cupboard with Stuart panelling. Afterwards we visited the farm. The farm keeps many rare breeds of animals and birds of prey. We were able to watch some of these magnificent birds in action, huge Hooded Vultures flying back and forth between their handler's arm and a perch nearby. Magnificent and thrilling!

Below: Pear Tree Cottage and The Mary Arden House, Wilmcote

The next morning we awoke somewhat refreshed and enjoyed breakfast in the dining room before heading out for the day. Our first stop was in the market town of Henley-in-Arden. It was a lot quieter and less busy than Stratford, and we took our time exploring the town. The High Street features buildings of medieval, Tudor, Georgian and Victorian architecture. We visited the timber-framed Guild Hall dating from the 15th-century that is still used today as a Court. Once inside we could appreciate the impressive wooden beams supporting the roof. At one end of the room was a large fireplace with heraldic arms, and in a case resting on a 17th century table was a copy of the Court Rolls, a mace dating from the time of King Henry VI, and a Constable’s truncheon. A helpful guide explained to us the meaning and historical significance of each item and the hall itself. Later we stopped by the Church of St Nicholas built by the De Montfort family, one of two churches in the village. The church was built during the 12th-century and we entered through a large, decorative Norman door. We spent some additional time in the town; there were so many interesting buildings to see, before departing for our next stop. We had two more quick stops to make before arriving at the day's primary objective, mighty Kenilworth Castle.  

Henly-in-Arden and The Guild Hall, Warwickshire

Our first stop was the Packwood House a timber-framed Tudor manor house that today is owned by Britain's National Trust. It was built in the mid 16th-century by the Fetherston family. The grounds are famous for its Yew Garden containing over 100 trees which are still magnificent. The property was not open when we arrived so we spent just a bit of time here exploring the grounds. There was a flock of sheep grazing in the field directly opposite the house, and as I was filming a horse with rider trotted by, adding a nice touch to the manor-like  surroundings.

Next up was another National Trust property located nearby, Baddesley Clinton. Here we found a moated manor house with origins dating to the 13th century. The house was built by the Brome family and was eventually equipped with gun-ports, and possibly a drawbridge over the moat. Again it was morning and the house was not yet open, so we could only do some exploring outside. Fortunately we did get to visit the lovely Church of St Michael just down the lane. It was a beautiful walk. The footpath leading to the church was bordered by fields of Snowdrops, Bluebells and Daffodils. St Michael's is a small, Norman-style church with a tall battlemented tower. The church was open so we got to explore inside. We found a lovely, intimate interior that features an interesting barrel-vaulted ceiling supported by arched wooden beams, stained glass windows, and memorial monuments for the Brome and Ferrers families. The chancel windows are 16th century, but there is also a 13th-century window in the north wall of the nave. Although we were again disappointed at not being able to tour the house, our visit to this lovely church made our stop here worthwhile.

Below: Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire

Our principal target for the day was majestic Kenilworth Castle located just west of the town of Kenilworth. We were here because of the castle's association with John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III, one of the most pivotal figures of the British Middle Ages, and possibly my wife's ancestor. Kenilworth, part castle, part medieval palace, is maintained by English Heritage. The earliest castle dates from the 1120s and features principally a large square Norman Great Tower. In the early 13th century Kenilworth was further enlarged by King John who, among other things, built water defenses here. The aforementioned John of Gaunt spent lavishly in the late 14th century, turning the medieval castle into a palace fortress. Kenilworth played a large role during the 2nd Baron's Revolt (1264-67) led by Simon de Montfort, and was an important Lancastrian base during the Wars of the Roses (1455-85). Following King Henry II's defeat at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, his son, the future King Edward I, was imprisoned here.  

Even in ruin Kenilworth is a large, substantial castle with similarities in size and defensive features to Caerphilly Castle in south Wales. We parked the car and headed towards the castle down a path leading through a field where cattle were grazing. Pretty idyllic, right? Not necessarily. As we made our way across the field we attracted the attention of a large bull who began slowly moving towards us in a not-so-friendly way. Fortunately we were able to scamper across the field and onto the castle grounds before learning of his intentions. (Notice the cows in the foreground of the first photo below.) We paid our admission and walked across the Causeway, a bridge spanning the castle's moat. We entered into the Outer Court through the low ruins of Mortimer's Tower. Remains of Kenilworth's curtain wall still guard this section of the castle. Directly in front of us were the ruins of the still-substantial Great Keep, and to the left, Leicester's Building. We explored the keep first, a huge oblong block with square angle turrets, the defensive core of the castle. Turing to the Leicester's Building we marveled at the ornate windows, complete enough to give one a good idea of this building's former opulence. We continued by exploring the remains of Gaunt's Tower followed by Kenilworth's Great Hall. We were able to climb to the tops of some of the towers and buildings to enjoy the magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. Finally we returned to the Outer Court to view the ornate Leicester's Gatehouse, a later addition to the castle. Next to the gatehouse are the Stables, East Towers, and a recreated Tudor Garden. We then took the pathway from the castle to visit St Nicholas' Church. The church sits within the grounds of the Norman and Gothic ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, and dates to the late 13th century. The large West Tower with its ornate Gothic-style arched doorway dominates the building. Pretty impressive. A little later we found the romantic ruins of the abbey resting peacefully next to its cemetery, and constructed of the same red sandstone as the castle and church. The abbey's large arched entrance straddles a pedestrian and bike path and we watched several cyclists pass under the arch during our visit. Wonder what the Abbot would say about that! There was so much to see and do at Kenilworth, that we decided to take our time for about the next two hours.

Below: (2) general view of the castle, (3, 4) views of the  Leicester's Building (L) and Keep (R) & (6) the ornate windows of the Great Hall

Our final stop of the day was yet another National Trust property, and this time it was open. Charlecote Park is a 16th-century country house on the banks of the River Avon about 4 miles east of Stratford-upon-Avon. It was built by the Lucy family in the mid 16th century, and is surrounded by 185 beautiful acres and a deer park. The grounds were landscaped by Capability Brown in about 1760. We arrived and were met by a sea of cars parked on the grass in front of the house. As it turns out there was a car rally in progress (Rover?) and the place was packed. No matter. We were here to explore and that's exactly what we did. We began by approaching the large gatehouse entrance that looks very much like a castle, with it's two tall towers topped by domed turrets. We entered, paid our admission, and found ourselves in the courtyard with its ornate oriel windows and Tudor-period chimneys. The courtyard is part architectural feast for the eyes and part lovely garden. After lingering here for a while we took a tour of the house with all its beautiful period rooms and furnishings. We returned to the courtyard and exited through an ornate iron gate with its heraldic emblems leading to the gardens. The gardens were of the "natural landscape" variety rather than a formal, planted garden, and they were beautiful. We walked along a stream running near the house and across it we noticed a large herd of deer peacefully grazing, unconcerned about our presence. I spent some time here filming. This was a lovely spot and was a great way to end our day's adventures. We made our way back to Wilmcote, again very satisfied with all we had experienced.

Charlecote Park, Warwickshire

The following day after enjoying breakfast at our B&B and walking around the village a bit, we headed 12 miles south down A4390 and then the B4081 to arrive at Chipping Campden. The town is a well-known tourist destination for those visiting the Cotswolds. In the Middle Ages Chipping Campden was a busy and wealthy wool trading center. Today it's known for its terraced High Street, dating from the 14th-17th centuries, many of which were built using the profits made by their owners. We found parking and began exploring, first coming upon the town's early 16th century Market Hall, a building that is still in use today. The open-air market has arched side walls open to allow light and was intended as a shelter for merchants and farmers selling their wares. We walked inside and wondered about all the business that had taken place here during the past centuries. As we continued, we noticed other finely-decorated buildings, most featuring that traditional honey-colored Cotswold stone, some of which were adorned with whimsical gargoyles. We visited the Parish Church of St James, more like a cathedral than a church, its tall tower fronting the large sanctuary. The tower was built around 1500 and stands 120 feet tall. This is one church that definitely benefitted from the area's wool trade. The cemetery attached to the church was richly landscaped with gravel paths, almost like a park. We spent a bit more time walking the streets and admiring all the period buildings, but it was soon time to go and head for our next destination.

Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire

Our destinations for this beautiful, sunny day were the lovely, but touristy, Cotswold town of Broadway, majestic Sudeley Castle, and Snowshill Manor. Before visiting Broadway hiked a bit of nearby Drover's Hill, only about a mile from Chipping Campden. Drover's Hill is a hiking path perched high on a ridge overlooking the Vale of Evesham and is part of "The Cotswold Way". Although not a building, it is a National Trust property.  We parked the car in the convenient car park and ascended a path to the top of the hill. Here we were rewarded with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, punctuated by fields of grazing sheep. We walked a short section of the path and saw the Broadway Tower in the distance. The Tower is an iconic landmark on the Cotswolds escarpment that was the brainchild of the 18th century landscape designer, Capability Brown. We lingered here for a while enjoying the tremendous views before returning to the car park.

Next we visited Broadway, a quintessential Cotswold town very popular with tourists. Broadway's historical roots are deep. It has connections to Roman Britain and is mentioned (Bradanwege ) by the Mercian King Edgar in the late 10th century. In Medieval times as well as later periods Broadway's wealth was based on the wool and cloth trade. We found parking easily and began our exploration of the town. It was still morning and the town was lively but not too busy. We walked up and down both sides of the High Street, taking note of the shops and pubs we found along the way. We soon came to the Lygon Arms Hotel, a place that holds fond memories for my mom and dad who stayed here on more than one occasion. The hotel, like most of the buildings in the town, is dressed in traditional Cotswold stone, and the facade was draped with purple Wisteria in full bloom. The inn was built in the 14th century and served as a key connection between Wales, Worcester and London during the Elizabethan period. The earliest written record of the inn is from 1377 but the current structure dates to the early 17th century. We decided to having an early lunch and we chose the nearby Swan Hotel centrally located close to the heart of town. The pub advertises that it's a "mellow stone inn with pale oak beams and uncluttered modern style serving real ales and hearty food." We got there a bit early and they weren't serving food yet but they said the bar was open so naturally we said yes please! We ordered a pint and a half pint of Boddington's Bitter, which we had enjoyed the previous year while in Yorkshire. (My tastes in real ale would improve on subsequent trips.) As we waited to order lunch, fish & chips, we listened to "Sunny Afternoon" one of my favorite tunes from The Kinks. (No, my memory isn't quite that good. I got this bit of info from the videos I shot.) Following lunch we spent more time walking around enjoying all the scenery and atmosphere Broadway has to offer before heading for our next stop.

Broadway, Worcestershire

Sudeley Castle, only a few miles from Broadway, is one of those drop-dead, gorgeous English manor houses and gardens that also has a history that matches or exceeds most other stately houses in Britain. Sudeley was the home of Katherine Parr, the 6th and final wife of King Henry VIII. We learn more from the Sudeley Castle website:

"Today Sudeley Castle remains the only private castle in England to have a queen buried within the grounds - Queen Katherine Parr, the last and surviving wife of King Henry VIII – who lived and died in the castle. Henry himself, Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, Queen Elizabeth I and Richard III have all played a part in Sudeley’s story. King Charles I found refuge here during the Civil War, when his nephew Prince Rupert established headquarters at the Castle. Following its ‘slighting’ on Cromwell’s orders at the end of the Civil War, Sudeley lay neglected and derelict for nearly 200 years."

Quite a pedigree, right? We parked the car and approached the entrance to Sudeley and immediately noticed the beautiful countryside that surrounds the castle. We paid our admission and found ourselves in front of the ruins of the Tithe Barn just past the visitor's entrance. This isn't the only ruin on the estate. Richard III built the large banqueting hall here, a once impressive Great Hall with accommodations, now reduced to a romantic ruin surrounded by beautiful gardens. Portions of the hall's oriel windows are decorated with what is presumed to be the White Rose of York. We decided to take a tour of the house first. The rooms at Sudeley have been wonderfully restored with period furniture, including the room where Katherine Parr was born. This room is also noted on the outside of the castle with a sign beneath a large, ornate oriel window. Other windows of the castle are decorated with a series of whimsical gargoyles which I enjoyed photographing (filming, actually).  Just beyond the ruined Banqueting Hall are the immaculate Queen's Gardens and to the left is St Mary's Church. St Mary's is a small, but beautiful church that served the owners of the castle. Queen Katherine Parr is buried here, and her elaborately carved white tomb (below) is adorned with the heraldic symbols that identifies her as a queen. This is certainly one of the most beautiful tombs I have ever seen. After spending some reflective time in the Chapel we exited and walked around both lakes on the estate. There were Black Swans and their cygnets (baby swans - had to look that one up) swimming in the lake. There were also several roaming Peacocks on the grounds (mandatory for places like this, I think), alerting visitors to their presence with their loud calls. It was certainly a remarkable afternoon, easily the best site of the day. A place of historical significance surrounded by great beauty. Can't ask for more than that.   

Sudeley Castle and Gardens, Gloucestershire

Our final stop of the day was Snowshill, a National Trust manor house and garden and the unconventional home of the eccentric Charles Wade. Snowshill is an interesting, typical Cotswold manor house made from local stone. The house dates from the 16th century and is Grade II listed. We took a tour of the house and spent time viewing and trying to figure out the collections that were stuffed into several rooms. The house contains an eclectic collection of thousands of objects, gathered over the years by Wade and includes toys, Samurai armor, musical instruments, paintings, old cans and tins, a collection of bottles, fabrics and clothing, oriental art and furniture, doll houses and furniture, model ships, and clocks, just to name a few! Actually, the oriental art and furniture was pretty impressive. The gardens were beautiful; formal garden beds, terraces and ponds, a ha-ha, an ancient dovecote and a model village. We spent most of our time walking the garden paths seeing what surprises awaited us around the next corner. It was pretty eclectic outside too. The unconventional Wade aside, this really is a beautiful property, much smaller than others we had seen, but every bit as charming and peaceful. There were also a couple of smaller cottages on the property that are rented out weekly by the National Trust. We had tried to book one of these for our trip but they proved very difficult to reserve. By this time it was late in the afternoon and time to return to Wilmcote. We had an exciting night planned back in Stratford and we needed to rest a bit first!

Snowshill Manor, near Broadway, Gloucestershire

When I made our hotel reservations for Stratford I also purchased tickets for the play that was being performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre the week we were there, Romeo and Juliet. Although not my favorite play, seeing one of Shakespeare's most famous plays performed in his home town by the Royal Shakespeare Company was an opportunity not to be missed. The play was set for 7:30 that night and we had a pre-theater dinner at Marlowe's Restaurant. Marlowe's is a traditional English restaurant in one of Stratford-upon-Avon's oldest buildings. Inside traditional oak paneling and oak beams again made us feel like we had slipped back in time. We were dining where many famous actors over Marlowe’s long association with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre had dined, including Sir John Gielgud, Sir Alec Guiness, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Vanessa Redgrave. Not bad. The food was good and the atmosphere is just what we needed before seeing the play. We finish and then walked the short distance to the theater. I wanted to be dressed for the occasion so I was waring a coat and tie, one of the very few in the audience. The inside of the theater was magnificent and the stage was large. We had good seats in the stalls with unobstructed views of the stage. As mentioned, the play was Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately this particular production was decidedly modern and there was very little on stage besides the actors; almost no scenery. That was a bit disappointing. Still, all was well until the end of the play when Juliet's soliloquy deteriorated into what seemed like a raving, hysterical rant, the likes of which I had never seen (along with most of the audience, I think). I know I wasn't the only one who felt this way because the applause at the end of the play was decidedly muted. OK...we saw a play where the director and actors had taken wide liberties with Shakespeare's original work. That's certainly not unusual. Still, we had managed to see one of Shakespeare's own plays performed in Stratford, so we were satisfied (almost).  

Below: Marlowe's Restaurant and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The next morning we had breakfast and took our usual morning walk around Wilmcote. This was a rare "open itinerary" day with only one scheduled place to visit, Warwick Castle. It was a short drive from Wilmcote to the castle via the A46. By visiting Warwick we were continuing our "Neville family pilgrimage" started during our trip to Yorkshire the previous year. We arrived and as we drove to the car park we passed a very large, separate bus (coach) parking lot which indicated to us that the castle was popular with groups. Although it was weekday Warwick was still pretty crowded. The history of Warwick Castle goes back to England's very first castle-building period. There was originally a wooden fort here built by William the Conqueror in 1068, situated on the River Avon. Going back a century there was an Anglo-Saxon burh established here by by Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great in 914. But the Warwick Castle that we know today is the large stone fortress built by a succession of later owners, including Henry II, the Beaumont family, Henry III, the Beauchamp family, the Neville family, George, Duke of Clarence (brother of King Edward IV), Richard III, and James I. Warwick's history, like Kenilworth, is tied to some of the principal dynastic struggles of the English Middle Ages, including, the Barons' Rebellion of 1173–74, the Second Barons' War of 1264–67, The Wars of The Roses, and the English Civil War. Warwick is actually two castles in one; the medieval castle with its towers, halls, wall-walks, and a dungeon to explore, and a post-medieval castle featuring lavishly-decorated residential rooms dating from 17th and 18th centuries.  

We arrived just as the castle opened at 10 o'clock, paid our admission and entered the castle through the Barbican and Gatehouse bringing us into the wide Inner Courtyard. Immediately in front of us was Warwick's original motte (Castle Mound) now topped by a stretch of battlemented curtain wall and small towers. It was nice to see a motte from the late 11th century still standing. After walking around the Courtyard we visited the castle's "Kingmaker" exhibit. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, "the Kingmaker" gained the castle through his wife's inheritance of the title. During the summer of 1469, Neville rebelled against King Edward IV but was subsequently killed in the Battle of Barnet in 1471. We walked down stairs to the exhibit that consisted of medieval period rooms telling the story of how Neville and his army prepared for battle along with mannequins dressed in period costume. There was an audio loop running, with the voices of the soldiers and The Kingmaker himself! I guess there's nothing wrong with that, but it's certainly not what my wife and I expect when visiting a historic medieval castle.  

We next visited the residential buildings that line the eastern side of the castle facing the River Avon. The Great Hall dates form the 14th century and the castle's residential rooms were built primarily in the 17th and 18th centuries, and include the Queen Anne Room, the Green Drawing Room, the Red Drawing Room, and...well, you get the picture. The Great Hall was the most impressive building featuring a collection of period weapons, and suits of armor for both man and horse. The other rooms were furnished with stunning period decorations that made you forget you were inside a castle. Alas, here too we found groups of mannequins standing around, made by none other than Madame Tussauds, of wax museum fame. Again, good for some but for me it detracted from the setting. To each their own. After finishing here we visited Warwick's formal gardens, a lovely and peaceful place, featuring meticulously manicured shrub-lined paths and fountains, and, or course, the mandatory Peacocks. Afterwards we exited the castle and headed down to the River Avon to view the castle from the river. I have to admit that the views of the eastern side of the castle from near the river are stunning. There is a field here set up here for medieval jousting tournaments and other such period reenactments. In one of my moments of "tourist weakness" we purchased two bottles of "Warwick Castle" wine at the gift shop as we left. It was a red of indeterminate varietal and I remember it wasn't very good. Oh well.

We enjoyed our visit to mighty Warwick Castle. There is enough medieval castle here to explore, and the castle's later residential rooms takes you away from the Middle Ages to experience some of the splendor of 17th and 18th century Britain. Many of the exhibits here are geared towards young school children and that's fine. In a sense, anything that causes children to learn about their country's past is a good thing, right?

Warwick Castle, Warwickshire

It was about noon when we left Warwick Castle so we decided to grab lunch at a pub nearby. By the time we finished lunch the cloudy day had changed to a steady drizzle which put a bit of a damper on the rest of the day. We decided to briefly explore the town of Warwick. Like the castle, Warwick has a long history. There is evidence of a Neolithic settlement here and the Romans and Saxons had settlements here too. The medieval town of Warwick was begun not long after William the Conqueror founded Warwick Castle in 1068. Warwick eventually became a walled town, and today remains are the east and west gatehouses survive. The west gate, which features a 14th century chapel built on top of the gatehouse, is close to the 16th century Lord Leycester's Hospital. The hospital is a collection of half-timbered medieval buildings established as a home for aged and infirm soldiers by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1571. We didn't get to tour the buildings so I assume they were closed. We had to be content with viewing the building exteriors and browsing a few of he shops nearby. Next we visited St Mary's Church, Warwick. The church has the status of collegiate church as it had a college of secular canons. The church was founded by Roger de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Warwick, in 1123, and was extensively rebuilt in the 14th century by a later Earl of Warwick, Thomas de Beauchamp. Here we only got to see the interior of the church from near the entrance as they were in the process of replacing the church's tile floors. Better luck next time. We were still pretty close to the castle so we decided to investigate what we could see of the exterior alond the River Avon near the impressive Guy's Tower. What we found was a lovely little cottage with a hidden garden providing yet another set of outstanding views of the castle. This was a surprise and something of a breath of fresh air after all the the crowds. The rain continued so we decided to simply return to Wilmcote and rest for the afternoon. We had several sites to see the following day, our last day full day in the Cotswolds.

Below: Lord Leycester's Hospital, Warwick

The following day was our last full day in the Cotswolds and we had a busy itinerary planned that included stops at Worcester Cathedral, Gloucester Cathedral, and  Berkeley Castle. Unfortunately we inherited the cloudy, rainy weather from the previous day but we persevered. It was a short 25 mile drive from Wilmcote to Worcester via the A422. The cathedral's foundations reach all the way back to the year 680, although the earliest surviving bits date from about 1084 when the cathedral was rebuilt in the Romanesque style by Bishop Wulfstan. Building continued during the following centuries and the cathedral we see today was basically complete by the late 14th century. We found parking not too far from the Cathedral and had to endure a steady drizzle as we approached. I had read that Worcester didn't provide much interior lighting, and it was wise to bring a torch. We definitely needed one. The rainy day contributed to the cathedral's already dimly lit interior, and I found myself using my torch for much of our time there. Nevertheless, this was a fascinating Cathedral. We entered and were immediately engulfed by the Nave and Quire running the length of the cathedral. The Great West Window is found at the end of the Nave, and even with very little light we could see that the stained glass was marvelous. In the middle of the Quire next to the Nave is the Cathedral's most famous monument, the tomb and effigy of King John. King John died after contracting dysentery during his final campaign against his rebellious Baron's in 1216. He was buried here in front of the altar of St Wulfstan. A new sarcophagus with an effigy was made for him in 1232, in which his remains now rest. His dark brown tomb features the bright red and gold shields of the Plantagenet Dynasty, along with other carvings, and his effigy is in remarkable condition. John is certainly one of England's most controversial kings, however in recent decades his bad reputation has improved somewhat.

Other highlights here include the effigies of the Beauchamp tomb on the side of the nave near the Porch. The effigies still retain some of their original color. The Lady Chapel dating from the mid 13th century features a beautiful wall of stained glass windows. We also visited Prince Arthur's Chantry, a beautifully decorated tomb with an ornate screen and canopy. Arthur was the elder son of King Henry VII and should have succeeded his father as king, however he died at Ludlow in 1502 and was buried at Worcester. His brother, Henry VIII, became king instead when his father died. We also walked around the medieval cloister, and later visited the Crypt where we came face-to-face with Wulfstan's earlier church. Here we found rows of unadorned Norman columns and Norman arcading, possibly incorporating earlier Saxon pillar bases. Again, we felt like we were stepping back in time, and the ancient atmosphere of the Crypt was palpable. We spent a bit more time exploring the cathedral before leaving for our next destination. We definitely enjoyed our visit here, soaking up the history and exploring the cathedral's different building stages. Although the dark and gloomy weather cast a pall over the interior, although I'm not sure that was a bad thing. It was thundering by the time we left (perhaps King John was sending us a message?) so we hurried back to the car and set off for our next destination.

Worcester Cathedral & the tomb of King John

Our next stop was Gloucester Cathedral. This time we were able to park a bit closer, which was good because by then the rain was coming down even harder and was now accompanied by strong winds. Not very good for video filming. The cathedral stands in the northern part of the city near the River Severn. It originated with the establishment of a minster, Gloucester Abbey, dedicated to Saint Peter and founded by Osric, King of the Hwicce, in around 679. We entered the cathedral through the South Porch, a large arched doorway with fine decorations and carved statues of saints above the arch. Just what you expect when entering a cathedral! Believe it or not, it was actually darker here than it was at Worcester Cathedral, but I still had my trusty torch to help. Once inside we found ourselves admiring the Nave, some 174 feel long. The Nave was begun in 1089 and features large Norman pillars supporting wide arches and a vaulted ceiling. Walking the length of the Nave we approached the Choir and North and South Transepts. We chose the North Transept, passing St Paul's Chapel before arriving at the tomb and magnificent effigy of King Edward II who was buried here in 1327. Edward, son of King Edward I, had a troubled reign marked by scandal and military disaster. A sign on his tomb reads as follows:

"Edward II. Murdered at Berkeley Castle on 20th September 1327. Buried here and tomb erected on the instructions of his son, Edward III. Alabaster figure made in London. The tomb became a place of pilgrimage. The offerings made at the shrine contributed towards he cost of remodeling the south transept and the choir (1337-1355)."

Crossing over to the South side of the cathedral we saw the magnificent Great East Window and its beautiful stained glass (right). The window was erected about 1350 and commemorates barons and knights who fought with Edward III at the battles of Crecy and Calais during The Hundred Years War. This was unlike any window we had ever seen. Practically every stained glass panel depicted a knight or Baron. Beautiful and historic. Next we viewed the tomb of Robert, Duke of Normandy, the ill-fated son of William the conqueror. A sign on his tomb tells us that:

"Robert Duke of Normandy, the eldest son of William the Conqueror. On the death of his father, Robert was left with the Dukedom of Normandy, Whilst William, his younger brother, became King of England. He distinguished himself in the first crusade, but was captured by his brother Henry I and confined to Cardiff Castle. He died there in 1134 and was brought to Gloucester for burial. This fine wooden effigy dates from c.1260, and the mortuary chest from the late 15th c."

Bad luck there. Robert's colorful wooden effigy is remarkable and still retains its vibrant colors. We explored the Crypt beneath the cathedral, the Cloisters and gardens before visiting the Treasury, a wonderful exhibit featuring a collection of historical art treasures belonging to a church, including gold plated communion vessels, plates, manuscripts, etc. There was so much to see here, and we explored more than I am mentioning. Soon it was time to go. We grabbed a quick lunch and a pint at a local pub before departing for our next destination; the place where Edward II was actually murdered. Berkeley Castle.

Gloucester Cathedral and the tombs of King Edward II & Robert, Duke of Normandy

The castle's origins date back to the 11th century, and has remained in the possession of the Berkeley family since the 12th century. The first castle at Berkeley was a motte-and-bailey, built around 1067 by William FitzOsbern shortly after the Conquest. That castle was subsequently held by three generations of the first Berkeley family, all called Roger de Berkeley, and was rebuilt by them in the first half of the 12th century. We arrived with the rain and gloom that had followed us all day. Even with the bad weather it was easy to see that Berkeley was a large and magnificent castle. Despite the castle's history and because of the alterations over the centuries, Berkeley seems more like a post-medieval castle, and a bit removed from its 12th century appearance. That's certainly not unusual for castles that still serves as a family homes. We pulled into the car park and headed towards the entrance. We passed the Lily Pond and the manicured Bowling Lawn. A low wall on our right hand side lined the walkway to the castle where we found a series of small cannons overlooking the terraced gardens. There were also two cannons greeting us on either side of the Gatehouse. The Gatehouse leads to the paved castle Courtyard with its collection of halls and towers; some of these looked medieval while others seemed later. The entrance to the castle itself is through a tower and an elaborately decorated, arched wooden door, complete with three carved figures. We toured the castle with all its wonderfully-decorated rooms featuring period furniture from several different eras. Of course what a lot of people come here to see is the cell where King Edward II was murdered in 1327. This room retains its medieval appearance and was sparsely furnished with only a table and chair. Most historians believe that Edward was murdered here, while others maintain that he survived his visit to Berkeley and lived out his life in seclusion. After our tour we spent time walking around the lovely formal gardens with its sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. There are a series of terraces here with a variety of flowers and plants springing from the terrace walls, and leading down to the castle's lawn. The gardens and lawn provide excellent views of the south side of Berkeley and its many fine exterior details.

Next we visited the interesting church next to the castle. The Church of St Mary likely dates from Saxon times but the present church (part of which survives today) dates from the mid 13th century. The church is surrounded by a graveyard and the building itself has a very ancient feel. Inside we found stone columns supporting large arcaded arches and a timber-framed roof. We immediately noticed the finely carved tomb effigy of Lord Thomas and Lady Katherine Berkeley on the south-east side of the nave. A sign near the tomb tells that:

"Thomas was the Lord of Berkeley when Edward II was murdered in Berkeley Castle, 1327. He and his brother Maurice the next Lord were at the Battle of Crecy with Edward III in 1346, hence the two Berkeley shields in the Crecy Window in Gloucester Cathedral."

This was a nice tie-in as we had just viewed the aforementioned window at Gloucester Cathedral. I found this interesting because although Edward III took brutal revenge on some of the people responsible for his father's murder, apparently the Berkeleys escaped his vengeance. As we continued we noticed various carved gargoyles adorning the arches and walls of the cathedral. Nothing like a whimsical gargoyle to brighten up your day. What I found the most fascinating about St Marys was the collection of Saxon stonework displayed in wooden cases. Some of the stones are finely carved and are thought to have been reused when the present church was built, a testament to St Mary's Saxon heritage. Surprisingly the church also displays Roman tiles and other remains that were excavated from under the Chancel floor. While you can usually expect certain things when visiting a medieval church, impressive architecture, lovely stained glass windows, and well-preserved monuments, you don't always see Saxon and Roman artifacts on display as well. Very impressive! Despite the rain it had been an amazing day. Worcester Cathedral, Gloucester Cathedral, Berkeley Castle and St Mary's Church, had once again fired our imaginations as we came face to face with places and stories we had only previously imagined. By now it was late in the day and we still had a final stop to make before returning to Wilmcote.

Our final stop of the day was the picture-postcard market town of Bourton-on-the-Water, known for its low bridges and traditional stone houses. By the time we arrived it was early evening and most of the shops were closed. We walked around a bit looking at the buildings and cottages near the village center, and we decided to have an early dinner at a local pub (I can't remember the name) before returning to Pear Tree Cottage. We really enjoyed our time in the Cotswolds, and, as usual, it was difficult to pick a favorite moment or site. There were so many. The village of Wilmcote and staying at lovely Pear Tree Cottage was actually one of the nicest parts of the trip, as was exploring Stratford and seeing a Shakespearian play. I suppose if I had to pick a site it would be Kenilworth Castle, which remains, even in ruin, one of the most impressive and interesting castles my wife and I have visited. As for the manor houses we visited, Sudeley Castle, takes the prize here because of its combined history, period rooms, chapel, lovely gardens, and grounds. We had seen a lot on the first leg of the trip and there was much more to come. We left Wilmcote the following morning, rested and excited because we were returning to Wales. 


Part II: Wales: Betws-y-Coed

It was about a 3 hour drive from Wilmcote to our next destination, Llangollen, Wales, mainly via the M5/6, M54, and finally the A5. We had booked a nice long 7-night stay at the Ty'n-y-Celyn House in Betts-y-Coed and had pretty much the entire day before we needed to check in. The town of Llangollen lies in the beautiful Dee Valley and is close to the three sites on our agenda for the day, Castell Dinas Bran, Plas Newydd, and Valle Crucis Abbey. First up was Llangollen. Approaching Llangollen from the A5, the Dee Valley finally revealed itself and we simply had to pull over and admire the views. We were captivated by the rolling green hills dotted with farms and herds of grazing sheep. I knew right then and there that this part of Wales was a going to be special. A couple of miles on we arrived in the town, parked the car and headed for the town center near the bridge. It was a weekday so it wasn't very crowded. Along the way we browsed a couple of shops and later found the visitor's center. We continued towards the bridge which was overlooked by the Royal Hotel. Here we stopped and enjoyed the magnificent views of the River Dee and the town downstream. We headed across the road, past some railroad tracks to the Llangollen Wharf. Here there were a collection of colorful narrow boats, both docked and making their way along the canal.

We were looking for Castell Dinas Bran and I had done my homework so I pretty much knew where the steep path to the castle began. The Castle sits atop a hill about 1,000 ft above the valley floor, however, the climb to the top is not an easy one. Various sources, including the castle guidebook tell us that:

"Castell Dinas Bran occupies one of Britain's most spectacular sites. A rugged, foreboding pinnacle, the hillock was the ideal spot to erect a castle. Reid (1973) speculated that the hill at Dinas Bran was occupied in the 8th century by a man named Eliseg. The same Eliseg also gave his name to an ancient pillar that stands just north of Valle Crucis Abbey, near Llangollen.  The historical record also conflicts over whom really built the remains at Dinas Bran. The most reliable sources state that Gruffydd Maelor II, son of Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor I, began the castle in the late 1260's. The elder Madog founded nearby Valle Crucis Abbey, where both men were buried. During those final two decades, the castle on the hilltop became a prized possession of the princes of Powys Fadog. Dinas Bran's power did not go unnoticed by English forces. In 1277, during Edward I's initial foray into Wales, the Earl of Lincoln, Henry de Lacy, besieged the castle. The Welsh lord of Dinas Bran was forced to submit to the invading army, which promptly set the site afire, completely destroying it."

Having visited my first native-built castles on our previous year's holiday, I was excited about seeing Dinas Bran. It wasn't too long before we located the public footpath to the castle close to a school. I believe part of the path was next to the school's athletic field. We passed a few houses and then came upon a style leading through fields of grazing sheep where the castle finally came into view. We had managed the easy part of the hike, and we were now confronted with a steep crisscrossed path beginning across a long field, winding its way to the summit of the castle. It looked a bit challenging (1st photo below). At this point my wife, Parthene, decided that it would be better if she did some shopping in the town while I assaulted the castle. As it turned out this would be one of my wildest ever visits to a Welsh castle. Although it was a mostly sunny day, once I started towards the castle I was immediately reminded of why people often claim that the weather in Wales is best described as "changeable." In the course of the next hour I experienced what seemed like all four seasons at once. It went from totally calm winds to gusts of about 40 mph; beautiful blue, sunny sky to overcast, then light rain; then a hail storm, and back to beautiful calm. Then the cycle repeated itself! The sheep, on the other hand, didn't seem to mind, and continued their grazing as they have here for centuries. I finally made it to the rock-cut ditch that surrounds this part of the castle, evidence, historians say, of an early Iron Age hill fort that predates the castle. I continued my climb up to the flat-topped summit, and, although there were two other people already there, they left shortly so I pretty much had the place to myself. In truth, the remains of Dinas Bran are slight but still very interesting, however it's the beauty of the surrounding countryside from the summit of the castle that makes a trip here compelling. Although we had been to the heart of Snowdonia on previous trips to Wales, I kept thinking to myself that this was the most beautiful vista I had yet seen. I spent quite some time exploring the ruins and admiring the surrounding countryside before returning to the town. We had lunch and a pint at a local pub near the bridge before visiting our next site located on a hill just behind the town.

Located on a hill behind the town is Plas Newydd, which for 50 years was the home of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who moved here from Ireland in 1780. The two were involved in what was then a scandalous same-sex relationship, but here in Llangollen they became local celebrities. According to the official website:

"Plas Newydd, Llangollen is a stone built house converted into a gothic ‘fantasy’ by its most famous inhabitants,The Ladies of Llangollen. The ladies ran away from the life they were expected to live in Ireland in 1778 to set up a new life and home in Wales. The house has been welcoming visitors since the arrival of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby in 1780 who lived there for the next 50 years. Indeed their notable visitors included The Duke of Wellington, Wordsworth, Shelley, Sir Walter Scott and Josiah Wedgewood."

The original cottage was expanded by the ladies, and then again by subsequent owners in the 19th century. Although the grounds and gardens here are lovely, what makes this place different are the many oak carvings collected by the ladies and set in patchwork style over much of the exterior and interior of the house.

We parked the car and walked to the house, which, at first seems like a just a lovey period cottage set amidst lovely gardens. Scattered among the front garden with its well-manicured shrubs and winding paths are a series of modest sized standing stones in a circular pattern. A bit quirky but quirky is the name of the game here. Looking at the house from the garden we saw the ruins of Dinas Bran on its steep hill behind the house. That's a pretty nice backdrop! We spent some time admiring the finely carved woodwork of different shapes and figures on the outside windows. Then we headed inside where we found room after room of carved wood everywhere: on the walls and ceilings, above fireplaces, on the stairs, around the doorways, and on the furniture. The handrail on the stairs leading to the top floor featured a carved lion and other animals (below). We also noticed sone handsome stained glass windows. I've never seen a place like it before or since. The grounds and house are both bizarre and beautiful at the same time, and I think Plas Newydd is definitely worth a visit for both reasons. After visiting here we returned to the town and enjoyed lunch at Gales Wine Bar and Hotel on Bridge Street. Then it was off for our final destination for the day.

Valle Crucis Abbe is a Cistercian abbey only about 4 miles from Llangollen, and is set in stunning countryside. The abbey was built in 1201 by Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor, Prince of Powys Fadog. Although the ruins of the abbey are not nearly as impressive as those found at Tintern, the countryside is more picturesque, and the abbey also holds a unique surprise for visitors. We parked the the modest car park close to the entrance and paid our admission to the site. The first thing that struck me about the abbey was the beautiful west front with its rose window tracery still intact. The nave is large, with green grass, and the stumps of large pillars that once carried the weight of the roof, all now framed by the hills beyond. The most impressive survival here is the vaulted chapter house, a nearly-complete building with two floors. The chapter house holds a very fine collection of medieval memorial sculpture preserved in the upstairs (the surprise) primarily from the late 13th century. Some of these are magnificent, including the slab for Madog ap Gruffudd. His inscription reads "Here lies Madog son of Gruffudd called Fychan." Madog ap Gruffudd (d.1306) was the great-grandson of the founder of the abbey, and great-grandfather of Owain Glyndwr.

The site is also home to the only remaining monastic fishpond in Wales (yet another surprise). A bench located on the far side of the pond provides outstanding views of the rear of the abbey. We remained here for quite a while. I find that the history and beauty of Valle Crucis makes it one of those places that are difficult to leave. But, we had another interesting site to visit right next to the abbey, and with it we departed medieval Wales and entered the Anglo-Saxon world and the Welsh kingdom of Powys.   

Found immediately next to the abbey is the 9th-century Eliseg's Pillar. According to the Cadw guidebook for Valle Crucis Abbey:

"Eliseg's Pillar is the remaining portion of a tall round-shafted cross of Mercian type, which gave its name to the valley and the neighboring abbey. All that survives today is part of the rounded lower shaft, on one side of which it is just possible to see weathered traces of early lettering. The roll mouldings at the top of the surviving section mark the point at which the squared and tapering upper portion of the cross would have originated; this may have continued to a height similar to that of the rounded shaft before being surmounted by a cross-head. The monument was probably erected in the early 9th century, celebrating the exploits of a king up to a century earlier. Eliseg's campaigns may have provoked the construction of Offa's Dyke by the English, as a defence against the Welsh, in the mid 8th century. "  

We parked the car on the side of the road n across the street from a local hotel and pub. The pillar is surrounded by a low iron fence, and the inscription was very difficult to find. Although not as impressive as the carved crosses found at Nevern and Carew, it predates these fine monuments by a couple of centuries. It is one of the few surviving monuments in Wales that can be traced back to the turbulent 9th-century in Anglo-Saxon Britain; Powys, Mercia, and the great King Offa. For me, that alone makes Eliseg's Pillar unique and well worth visiting.


Betws-y-Coed, Wales

It only took us a little over an hour heading west on the A5 to arrive at out destination for the week, Betws-y-Coed. Betws is a busy village in the Conwy valley and a popular visitor destination for the Snowdonia National Park. The town features 19th-century buildings, lots of shops, hotels, and the Church of St Mary. We had a 7-night reservation at the Ty'n-y-Celyn House B&B, where our host was Clive Muskus and his friendly and entertaining Border Collie, Monty. The small B&B had four front-facing en-suite rooms with views of the Snowdonia landscape, and we booked a nice size room on the 2nd floor. Both Clive and Monty were great hosts. Clive was friendly and helpful, giving us suggestions about what to see in the area. I believe he was a World War II veteran. Monty entertained us all week. We played kick-ball in the the front yard of the B&B, and on one occasion he escorted us into town, taking us over the bridge then returning home. Clive said that this was OK because he enjoyed showing people the way. What a good boy! One of my favorite things about Wales is interacting with these amazing, intelligent dogs.

We unpacked and rested just a bit before heading out to explore the town. Fortunately we were connected to the town by the Sappers Suspension Bridge spanning the River Afon. The bridge was built in the 1930s by the Royal Engineers to link the village with an army camp on the opposite side of the river. It provided us a quick 10-minute walk into town. We visited some of the shops, most of which were geared towards hiking and outdoor activities. Later we enjoyed dinner at a the Pont-y-Pair Hotel (pub), and, because we had walked into town, I got to enjoy two pints of bitter rather than one. A real treat! We ate here a couple of more times during the week; good food and good ale.

We actually spent a lot of time in and around the town during the week, visiting the shops and admiring the surrounding beauty. We always seemed to end up at the Pont-y-Pair Bridge and its views of the Afon river. (Maybe it was because the bridge is close to the pub?) The bridge was built circa 1500, and people tend to congregate here (we did) to snap photos of the river. That's OK except the bridge sees a lot of car traffic and there really isn't room for both cars and pedestrians. Therefore you will hear drivers blowing their horns from time to time to clear the pedestrians! Later in the week we took the short hike to beautiful Swallow Falls and visited the Waterloo Bridge located about half a mile south-east of town. The cast iron bridge was built in 1815-16 by Britain's famed civil engineer Thomas Telford. We also enjoyed dinner one night at Ty Gwyn Hotel, located just out of town at the intersections of the A5 and the A470. They have a pub, a nice restaurant, and offer accommodations too.

Ty'n-y-Celyn House, Sappers Suspension Bridge, Pont-y-Pair pub, Parthene & Monty

The next morning we had breakfast at the B&B before heading out for the day's adventures. The day began with a visit to Beaumaris Castle on the Isle of Anglesey. We had visited here the previous year, and were so captivated by the town and castle we decided to make it a stop on out 1995 holiday as well. It took us about an hour and a half to get there, north on the A5, over the Menai Straight and onto the A545 to Beaumaris.

We parked our car in the large car park close to the castle next to the shore. Beaumaris is a handsome castle with almost perfect symmetry. The image most people associate with Beaumaris is one of swans swimming peacefully in the castle moat, framed by the castle's handsome checkered-stone exterior towers. This is the first striking aspect of Beaumaris: the castle's exterior beauty. Although never completed to their planned height, Beaumaris' large towers are impressive. Most of the castle is surrounded by a moat, next to park and playground complete with picnic tables. Families of ducks and swans swimming peacefully in the castle most add to the attractive setting. So, much of Beaumaris' beauty can actually be appreciated even before setting foot inside the castle. Construction of Beaumaris began in 1295 and a substantial workforce was employed in the initial years under the direction of James of St George. Beaumaris was never completed as planned, partly because funds for its construction were diverted to Edward's Scottish campaign.

We entered the castle via a wooden bridge and a substantial gatehouse complete with murder holes. The castles exterior towers are quite large but Beaumaris' six inner ward towers are even larger. Once inside the gatehouse the dimensions of these towers become apparent, if not a bit confusing. Confusing, because the concentric design of the castle means that one set of walls and towers looks exactly like the others as you make your way around the ward. After exploring the large inner ward we entered one of the towers and began exploring the castle's fascinating interior passageways running inside the walls of the castle. Beaumaris allows visitors an opportunity to explore significant sections of inner wall passageways. The passageways here are dark, a bit rough around the edges, and very "medieval." Their purpose was to allow soldiers to move between the towers, accessing the guardrooms, sleeping chambers and the castle latrines. We worked our way along the passageway which eventually brightened and led to the Chapel Tower, one of two of the inner ward's large D-towers. We continued our exploration of the castle's passageways including the latrine chutes stationed along the way that emptied into the moat. Then it was back outside to explore the Outer Ward  including the large towers and battlemented curtain wall. From this vantage point the Chapel and Middle towers are even more impressive, tall, stout structures that dominate the outer ward. This area of the castle also leads to the Llanfaes Gate, the dock that was used to resupply the castle from the water. As was the case the previous year, the castle's wall-walks were still closed to the public. Getting back in the car we drove down the small lane beside the visitor's center for views of Beaumaris from the fields behind the castle, before departing for our next destination.

We crossed the Meani Straight and got on the A55 heading towards Conwy Castle, another site we had visited on our previous year's trip. Before visiting the castle we walked around the town a bit, and enjoyed a pub lunch and a pint at the Castle Hotel and pub near the town square. We had had lunch here the previous year too. Afterwards it was time to visit the castle. Again, probably the best, simple description of Conwy is found in the guidebook published by CADW, the Welsh Historic Trust, which states: "Conwy is by any standards one of the great fortresses of medieval Europe." Again quoting from the castle guidebook:

"Anyone looking at Conwy Castle for the first time will be impressed first and foremost by the unity and compactness of so great a mass of building, with its eight almost identical towers, four on the north and four on the south, pinning it to the rock on which it stands. Especially striking is the long northern front, where the tower's equidistant spacing divides the wall surface into three exactly similar sections, each pierced by a similar pair of arrowloops, and each rising to a common battlement line. "The Inner Ward is the heart of the castle, containing, as it does, the suite of apartments which Master James of St. George contracted to build for King Edward and Queen Eleanor in 1283. In each range of buildings the principal rooms were on the first floor, with heated but somewhat dark basements below them. All the floors are now missing."

The fortress was designed by Edward I's master castle builder James of St. George, who built eight massive towers and high curtain wall to protect the castle. Construction began in 1283, the castle becoming an important part of King Edward I's plan of surrounding Wales with "an iron ring of castles" to conquer the Welsh people. The highly defensible wall Edward built around the town was intended to protect the English colony planted at Conwy, because the native Welsh population were understandably violently opposed to English occupation of their homeland. Like Edward's other well-preserved castles, Conwy gives visitors the opportunity to walk top portions of the curtain wall, and ascend higher to the tops of the towers. From these vantage points you can begin to appreciate the layout of the castle interior - the Inner Ward, Great Hall and Cellars, King's Hall, and other associated buildings.

Although the interior of the castle is not as complete as Caernarfon, the rectangular shaped interior is unique among Edward's castles. The different sections rise to three distinct heights in a terraced fashion, reminding one a little of the Inner Ward structure at Chepstow Castle in southeast Wales. Conway also has a nearly set of town walls surrounding the castle, and this is where we headed next. It is possible to walk about 3/4 of the way around the town on the walls that are broken only by towers and gates along the way. Arriving at the last tower near the quay provides outstanding views of the castle, water and surrounding countryside. Those who miss this opportunity are missing an important element of Edward's planned towns.

After visiting the castle and exploring the town walls, we walked back through Conwy and headed towards the quay. We stoped to admire Plas Mar, a medieval merchant's house and one of the oldest dateable houses in Wales. We then passed under a medieval arch (also used by cars), a remnant of Conwy's town wall, to arrive at the quay. Here we found a collection of colorful boats and lots of people enjoying the pleasant afternoon. The views of the castle from here are very good. We put on our "tourist" hat and visited "The Smallest House in Great Britain" (admission 50p). We were hungry so we purchased fish and chips at a stand and enjoyed them while watching the vibrant scene. Afterwards we walked back through the town and to the car. It had been another great day in Conwy, and it wouldn't be our last.

We departed and headed south down the B5106 to enjoy the scenery in the beautiful Vale of Conwy, a section of the Conwy Valley featuring rolling green hills, farms, and field upon field of grazing sheep. From here we returned to Betws-y-Coed, did a bit of shopping, and played a brief game of ball with Monty back at the B&B. He was glad to see us. (pics below made from my videos.)

The following day was dedicated to exploring the heart of Snowdonia with its rugged, mountainous fields and plenty of sheep. (You always have to be careful for the naughty sheep who manage to escape their fencing to enjoy the grass just off the road.) Although we had been through Snowdonia on our previous two trips, we didn't exactly take the time to to enjoy the landscape to its fullest while driving from castle to castle. This year would be different as we were determined to do some hiking. We stopped at the popular youth hostel at the start of the Miner's and Pyg tracks, two of the routes up Mt Snowden.We would return here later. We continued down the road and the dramatic Llanberis Pass opened up before us. We were headed towards the town of Llanberis. The driving here is tricky, not only because of the narrow, winding road, but because of the dramatic countryside that simply demands your attention. As we made our way towards the town we stopped to admire the cottages and their fields of grazing sheep and stone fences. To me this was a scene out of an ancient fairy tale. Time does really seem to stand still here, and we were enjoying every minute.

Our first stop was Dolbadarn Castle just outside the town of Llanberis. We parked in the car park at the head of a short trail leading to the castle. Author and historian Lise Hull provides a brief description of the castle and its history:

"Dolbadarn Castle stands rather forlornly on its rocky hillock some 80 feet above Llyn Padarn, on the eastern side of the main A4086 roadway between Caernarfon and Snowdonia. Undoubtedly many tourists know about the masterful castle in Caernarfon, and may be so intent on reaching that fortress that they overlook the smaller stronghold at Dolbadarn. Yet, it is a marvelous relic, hallmarked by a proud tower built by the Welsh princes of Gwynedd, and, as such, is every bit as significant as the more massive Edwardian castles, now listed as World Heritage Sites. The castle at Llanberis dates to the 13th century, but remains in solid condition, although a shell of its former self. The dominant feature at the site is the impressive round tower, built of slate and rubble. Looks are deceiving, for this great keep encloses a surprisingly complex series of chambers and once rose three stories. Today, the tower reaches 40 feet in the air, is 40 feet in diameter, and is still girded by walls 8 feet thick."

We started down the trail to the castle through a lush section of forest before Dolbararn emerged before us, standing on a precipice overlooking Llyn Padarn. Although you can see Dolbadarn's great keep from the Llanberis Pass, as we approached the site on foot, we were unprepared for the massive structure that loomed before us. Although you can call Dolbadarn's remains "slight" there was nothing slight about what we were seeing. As we got closer we noticed a set of stone stairs winding around the castle, that provide access to the keep. (The stairs were a later addition and were not contemporary with the castle.) There were other people enjoying the site too, including families with children. In the foreground we saw low stone footings and piles of rubble, remnants of the castle's former halls, towers, and curtain wall. We climbed the stairs of the Great Keep that led to a platform inside where you can view some of the castle's interior structures, including windows, doors, fireplaces and latrine chutes. The stairs continue up to the top of the keep. At this height we were able to better appreciate the plan of the castle laid out below us. Back outside we walked around the perimeter of the castle, exploring the ruins of the curtain wall, while being dazzled by the stark beauty all around us. The castle and the lake framed by the mountains is certainly a memorable scene, and it's easy to see why artists like J.M.W. Turner painted here.

Bodnant Garden is a National Trust property near Tal-y-Cafn, Conwy, Wales, overlooking the Conwy Valley. My parents had recommended a trip here because my mom loved gardening, a like-long passion. Founded in 1874 the garden spans 80 acres of hillside and includes formal Italianate terraces, informal shrub borders stocked with plants from around the world. The garden's founder was Henry Davis Pochin, a Victorian industrial chemist. JP. Pochin bought the Bodnant estate in 1874 and employed Edward Milner, apprentice to Joseph Paxton, to redesign the land around the existing Georgian house.

We paid our admission and headed towards the gardens underneath a beautiful canopy of trees draped over a metal frame creating a long green tunnel. The tunnel was boarded by an array of blooming plants, including read and pink Azaleas. We explored the top part of the gardens first, a combination of formal and wild gardens, tall trees, landscaped terraces, ponds, and views of the stately manor house peaking through occasionally. I think the most impressive flowers were the dozens of blooming Rhododendrons and Azaleas that were seemingly everywhere. Beautiful. We eventually descended down a steep path to the bottom of the gardens. Here we found oriental gardens with waterfalls and streams, pretty bridges, bamboo, along with oriental statues and garden structures. All of this was surrounded by the brilliant blooming flowers mentioned above. Then it was on to the mansion where we enjoyed wide views of the surrounding countryside and hills. We stayed here for almost two hours as it was difficult to leave this beautiful patch of north Wales. By then it was lunchtime and we decided to move on to our next destination.    

Next in the agenda was Denbigh Castle, not as well known or as often visited as some of the other Welsh castles built by Edward I, but, in my opinion, just as interesting. We first went into the town (Denbigh) and looked for a local pub for lunch and a pint. The Plough Inn looked promising but for some reason they were closed (darn). Instead we enjoyed lunch at The Forum licensed cafe nearby. No beer on tap here so I had to settle for a can of Grolsch Premium Lager, not an ale but also not a bad beer. Afterwards it was on to the castle.   

Denbigh was constructed within what was originally the Welsh patrimony of Perfeddwlad (Paul R. Davis, Cadw). The castle is dominated by a triangle of three octagonal towers that forms its main entrance, and mural towers and barbicans protect the curtain wall. Over the gatehouse is the centuries-worn statue of King Edward I himself, still watching over (I guess) all those who enter. The castle connects to the town walls, which remain largely intact. So, like Conwy Castle, at Denbigh you have the opportunity to explore both castle and a nearly-complete of town walls, a bonus! The castle ruins here are extensive, impressive, and, just as in medieval times, still dominate the town below. We parked in the car park next to the castle and began our assault. It was a bit of a gloomy day and the ruins themselves also seemed a bit gloomy. We first spent some time outside admiring the remains of Denbigh's Great Gatehouse and the aforementioned statue of Edward. The statue seemed like a remarkable survival. We entered through the gatehouse with the large Prison Tower to our right and Porter's Lodge Tower to our left. Once inside we turned around to view the rear of the Great Gatehouse complex, which I thought was more impressive from inside the castle probably because the large Badness Tower really isn't visible from the outside. There were sets of stone stairs leading into the towers here. We turned to face Denbigh's large Inner Ward. All the original buildings here are gone, replaced by a lawn of grass stretching to the opposite end of the castle. We climbed to the top of the castle via a staircase near the ruins of the Great Hall. From this vantage point is was easy to understand the castle's strategic advantages. After the Great Hall we explored the "Green Chamber" containing some of Denbigh's finer details, including a a carved corbel in the shape of a lion's head. We made our way down to the Postern Gate, which in medieval times gave access to Denbigh's town walls.

Today's access to the town walls is outside the castle, and this is where we headed next. We first had to obtain the key to the locked entrance at the castle admissions hut. We exited he castle, circled around to the right and found the entrance at the Exchequer Gate. We locked the gate behind us (as instructed) an began our tour. The town walls at Denbigh are a lot different than those found at Conwy. At Conwy you have a circuit of walls surrounding the town and a series of mainly small towers along the way, with the castle visible for the entire walk. At Denbigh the towers along the wall are more impressive structures with names like The Burgess Gate, The Countess Tower and The Goblin Tower, and the castle is hidden for most of the route. What you do get at Denbigh are outstanding views of the surrounding countryside from most of the wall-walk. The Burgess Gate, has an impressive entrance flanked by two towers and a portcullis, which looks very much like a castle entrance rather than a gate. The Goblin Tower is a large hexagonal tower with two floors, the upper floor reached by a staircase on the south wall. We actually spent as much time here as we did at the castle, finally emerging from the locked gate at the end of the walk and returning to the castle. Denbigh Castle was something of a surprise; the pictures I had seen in books definitely didn't do justice to what I thought was an impressive and interesting castle. Here you get the same type of castle experience as you do at Conwy, but without the busy town and influx of tourists. Denbigh had proved to be a quieter but very rewarding experience. 

Below: (1&2) Great Gatehouse, (3) Inner Ward, (4) Great Hall & (5) Town Wall

From Denbigh it was a short six miles to St Asaph Cathedral located in the town of the same name. St Asaph was a local saint whose name is found in the neighboring Llanasa or Asa’s Church. The cathedral dates back 1,400 years, and has an interesting and turbulent history. The earliest parts of the present building date from the 13th century when a new building was begun on the site after the original stone cathedral was burnt by soldiers of King Edward I during the Second Welsh War in 1282. In 1402 the cathedral was damaged by the forces of Owain Glyn Dwr. The damage done to the Cathedral by Glyn Dwr’s troops is a point of speculation among historians, although the Cathedral's website indicates that the damage was catastrophic. The cathedral was damaged again during the Civil War of the 1640s. We were here to view a piece of history from a later date. The cathedral holds and displays the first bible written in the Welsh language, a task completed by William Morgan in 1588. This important translation is usually referred to as the "Morgan Bible," although there were others who helped Morgan with the translation. We parked the car and ventured inside the cathedral.

Before entering we noticed the ornate "Translator's Memorial" in the churchyard, a tribute to the men who helped Morgan with his translation. Inside we found another lovely church (cathedral) with typical large arches supported by stone pillars lining the nave. The seating in the nave was a mixture of pews and chairs. There were two larger arches in the middle leading to the alter and a large stained glass window behind. The cathedral's original stained glass was destroyed during the Civil War. We found several whimsical gargoyles tucked in the the arches of the walls and roof. We visited the tomb effigy of (perhaps) Bishop Anian II who began rebuilding the Cathedral following its destruction by the soldiers of Edward I in 1282. We then found the Morgan Bible resting in a modest-looking wooden case with a glass top and front, and gazed upon the open pages written in Welsh. I have to admit that it was a bit thrilling seeing these pages. We also found a carved grave slab featuring a shield and heraldic emblems dating from the 14th century, similar to the ones we saw at Valle Crucis Abbey. By now it was late afternoon and we decided to head back to Betws. It had been another day of history and dramatic landscapes, beginning with a trip through Snowdonia and the romantic ruins of DolbadarnCastle, the lovely Bodnant Gardens, Denbigh Castle and its impressive Town Wall walk, and finishing at St Asaph to view the historic Morgan Bible. Wow!

The next morning we had our usual breakfast at the B&B before heading out for the day. Once again I had a busy day planned with lots of driving. We were heading down the A470 to visit Castell y Bere, Harlech and Criccieth castles. Since the A470 also goes right past Dolwyddelan Castle I thought we might as well stop there too. We had visited the castle on our trip the previous year and were enchanted by the castle and the rugged beauty that surrounds it. Since we had been here recently I've decided to use what I wrote about the castle for my 1994 travel essay, as we pretty much did the same things.

Dolwyddelan, like many of the native-built castles, is surrounded by spectacular countryside, in this instance southern Snowdonia. Before arriving at the castle you first pass through the pleasant village of Dolwyddelan. Once past the village, Dolwyddelan's lonely keep rises into view sitting majestically above the surrounding countryside. The castle and car park are on the right side of the road and there's ample parking. There are wonderful walks all around Dolwyddelan, and the area is very popular with hikers. A castle, great walks, and a nearby village makes the area a great choice for a holiday.

In regards to the history of this important castle, Frances Lynch tells us that:

"Dolwyddelan is traditionally the birthplace of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, though the actual site was perhaps the vanished castle of the rocky knoll in the valley floor (above). There is no evidence for any building at the present castle site earlier than the early 13th century, when the area came under Llywelyn's control. The site covers two routes into Snowdonia, and admirably demonstrates Llywelyn's scheme of defence and control. Dolwyddelan remained an important stronghold for his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, and its capture by the English, perhaps through treachery, on 18 January 1283 was a turning point of the Edwardian campaign."

We paid our admission at the farm just up the track from the car park and began our hike to the castle. We had not yet visited a castle built by the native rulers of Wales, so we approached Dolwyddelan with great anticipation. It's a bit of hike to reach the castle but that was OK, and is actually what I prefer. Our reward for the hike were wide views of the surrounding countryside, the rugged but still beautiful edge of southern Snowdonia. As we expected there were sheep all around us grazing the somewhat rough terrain. A set of stone stairs finally led us to the base of the keep. The square keep at Dolwyddelan is quite large and intact. We climbed the wooden stairs to the entrance and found ourselves in a large room with display placards mentioning the castle's history. Stone stairs from the display room lead outside to the top of the keep. Here the walls are battlemented with saw-tooth merlons. It was from this vantage point that I began to understand the strategic siting of the castle. With sweeping views in all directions there would have been plenty of opportunity to spot anyone (or any army) approaching the castle. We spent time here taking in the views before exiting the keep to explore outside. The smaller West Tower survives close to the main keep but is largely destroyed and reduced to footings with the exception of a single wall still with its ground level doorway and window.  We were also able to trace the line of the castle's curtain wall, which has also been greatly reduced but is still recognizable. We continued to linger outside exploring the ruins and the perimeter of the castle, before making our way back down the trail and to our car.

We finished visiting the castle, got back in the car and started the drive to our next destination. I was pretty excited because we were going to visit Castell y Bere, a Welsh-built castle with an important history set in the wild and beautiful landscape of southern Sonwdonia. It was a 60 mile drive down the A470 an then the A487, but don't let those A-roads fool you. To approach the castle you have to navigate the much smaller B4505 and eventually a small track road leading to the castle, which lies close to the village of Llanfihangel-y-pennant. This is one of the most remote castles in all of Wales, and, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most beautiful.

Castell y Bere was built by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in the 1220s. The stone castle was intended to maintain his authority over the local people and to defend the south-west part of the princedom of Gwynedd. In 1282, war with Edward I of England (Boo!) resulted in the death of Llywelyn's grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, and Castell y Bere fell to English forces. Edward expanded the castle further and established a small town beside it. The castle enjoys a strategic location atop a steep-sided, rocky outcrop with protective ditches cut into the stone on the south and east sides. The entrance lies on the west side, where the barbican features two Gate Towers, overlooking stone steps approaching the inner gate.

We parked the car and approached the castle by walking down a short path leading from the car park, passing grazing sheep along the way. Part of the path led through a small forest of trees, their branches and leaves providing a shaded canopy along the way. The next part of the path was beside about a 10 foot high outcropping of rock, a sign that we were approaching the castle. We rounded a corner and climbed up a set of wide wooden stairs connecting to stone stairs leading to a wooden bridge over a ditch, the modern entrance to the castle. We entered the Courtyard after passing a large ruined tower on our left. In the courtyard we found a sign providing a brief history of the castle, a layout plan, and a drawing of how the castle may have once appeared. The castle is difficult to interpret because of its ruinous state, and because the castle has an irregular plan dictated by the outcropping of rock on which it rests. Although the ruins of Castell y Bere can be considered slight, there is actually more to explore here than at Dolwyddelan because the castle is bigger.  Looking north from the ruins of the Middle Tower we noticed a large well that supplied the castle with water. The Middle Tower just south of the courtyard is the best preserved building with a couple walls and stone staircases surviving. It is thought that the tower may have served as the castle's main hall. The North Tower is an apsidal, or "D-shaped", design that is characteristic of Welsh castles of the early 13th century. On the opposite end of the castle is the South Tower, also D-shaped. Sections of the curtain wall have also survived as do the low footings of most of the buildings, some several feet high, along with doorways and passages, and stone stairs going nowhere. I tried to focus on the castle and get my bearings, but found that my attention was being constantly diverted by the spectacular countryside that surrounds Castell y Bere, including breath-taking views of Cadair Idris. After a while we stopped examining the ruins and chose a comfortable place to sit and just look at everything around us. Yes, there is enough castle here to explore and enjoy, but, if you're like most people, you'll be more captivated by the stunning countryside that surrounds the castle. We simply didn't want to leave here, but it was time to go and we had more castles yet to conquer on this day. We returned to the car and backtracked to the A487 and A470, comforted by the feeling that we would return here again.

We passed Dolgellau soon switched to the A496 continuing north past Barmouth. We wee on our way to Harlech Castle. This was our third trip there in four years and I was beginning to understand why my dad found this castle so fascinating and so alluring. (Either that, or there is something wrong with me. Your choice.) Again, since we had just been here I am paraphrasing part of my essay from our 1994 trip. (After all, how many different ways are there to describe a tower or curtain wall?)

Harlech sits on a rocky knoll close to the Irish Sea. Construction began in 1282 during the Second Welsh War of independence. Harlech also played a part in several additional wars, including the siege of Madog ap Llywelyn between 1294 and 1295, and fell to Owain Glyn Dwr in 1404 before being retaken by the English in 1409. In the 15th century it was involved in the struggles between the houses of Lancaster and York during The Wars of The Roses, and was occupied by Royalist forces during the English Civil was in the 1640s.

We pulled into in the parking lot in front of the castle. Harlech's gatehouse is massive, its large round towers fronted by smaller twin corbelled towers. Before entering we took a look at Harlech's much-reduced curtain wall that stretches all the way around the castle. These certainly would have been impressive when complete. We passed through the portcullis gates and under the murder holes directly above our heads. Not much chance of getting through alive here. The gatehouse complex at Harlech is massive, something that is better appreciated from the castle courtyard looking back towards the rear of the gatehouse. The gatehouse has two upper floors with various rooms, windows and fireplaces. We spent time in the inner ward admiring the four large circular tall towers protecting it. We explored the remains of the Chapel and the West Range before exiting the castle via a rear gate to see Harlech's "way to the sea". The gate brings you to an area outside the main castle but still protected by the curtain wall. A passage through the wall leads to series of stone steps that at one time led down to the sea, the castle's means of resupply. Next it was up to the top of the castle to view the surrounding countryside from Harlech's wall-walks. This time we took the interior tower stairs rather than the external staircase. A lot of visitors to Harlech don't explore this part of the castle. It does take some effort to climb the stairs and there are basically no handrails along the low walls at the top (see below). We were OK with both and were again rewarded with some of the best castle-top views in Wales. Up here you can really appreciate the remote location of the castle enjoys. (If you can ignore he caravan park.) We explored a bit more of the castle, the exhibit room and the area between the castle and curtain wall before departing.

(1995) What was different on this trip was that after visiting the castle we hiked up into the hills behind the castle to get an elevated view of Harlech. It's really the only way you can see the entire front of the castle, and you definitely get a different perspective on things with these longer-range views. The surrounding hills are worth visiting, as long as you respect that there is farming and livestock (sheep) here. The hills are divided by stone fences and an occasional stone cottage almost as captivating as the castle. There is also supposed to be a Roman road somewhere nearby but I didn't have my OS map and we were unable to find it. Maybe next time. (And yes, there would be a next time.)

Our final stop of the day was Criccieth Castle located on the Llyn Peninsula in northwest Wales. We had visited here on our first trip to Wales with my parents in 1992, but we didn't have enough time to fully explore the castle and the town. The castle sits high on a cliff overlooking the Tremadog Bay in the seaside town of Criccieth. Although the ruins here are not as complete or as impressive as Harlech, the castle's dramatic defensive positioning is. Criccieth was originally (likely) built by the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (The Great) and added to by his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (The Last). The castle's most dominate feature is its large twin tower gatehouse. Most feel that the gatehouse was built by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in around 1230, while others claim it was constructed by the English King Edward I. The uncertainty is because the castle changed hands several times between Welsh and English. The castle's final building period was completed by the English following the second Welsh War of 1282-83.

Before going through the town we stopped at a lay-by next to fields of grazing whip for views of the castle at a distance. From here we are able to appreciate the castle's prominent position overlooking the bay. As was the case at several other castles we had visited, both the Welsh flag and the Cadw flag were flying over each of the gatehouse towers. We found parking in the town not too far from the castle, paid our admission and started up the steep hill towards the gatehouse. On our left we passed the ruins of the North Tower, now reduced to four walls of low rubble directly in front of the gatehouse. In the 13th century historians believe that the tower had a catapult, or trebuchet mounted on the tower of the roof. There is an interesting set of stone stairs the once led to the tower but now only provide a picturesque view of the shore and town below. At the top of the hill we rounded a corner and approached the Inner Gatehouse. If the gatehouse was built by Llywelyn it was probably his most impressive. The gatehouse is connected to the inner curtain wall that encircles the inner ward and still stands to its original height for most of the way. Entering the castle we found ourselves in the compact inner ward. We turned around to view the rear of the gatehouse which was also impressive. There are some well-preserved arrow-loops in the Western Gatehouse Tower, and in the Eastern Tower we could see large windows, indicating that the tower had two storeys. We explored other buildings including the Southeast Tower and Outer Gatehouse, but both were also greatly reduced, making it difficult to imagine their original appearance. Eventually we exited to the Outer Ward and then walked along the cliff overlooking Tremadog Bay. Along with the impressive Gatehouse, it's the outstanding views from here that draw many people to Criccieth. I have to admit that I took a lot of photos myself, almost ignoring the castle as I admired the surrounding beauty. The coast and bay were in front of me, and the town with its houses and cottages up in the hills behind me. It is also said that on a clear day you can see Harlech Castle from here and vice-versa (we didn't). After visiting the castle we walked around the town and enjoyed some delicious soft ice cream at Cadwalader's Ice Cream Shop, that advertises "World Famous Freshly Made Welsh Ice Cream." That sounded good to us!

It was a short 30 miles back to Betws-y-Coed. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at our B&B before enjoying dinner at the aforementioned Ty Gwyn Hotel. The food and ale were both good and we could tell that the hotel had been here for quite a while. Ty Gwyn is reported to be a former coaching inn dating from 1636, and the bar and dining room had low ceilings with wooden beams and flagstone floors. Again, it was like stepping back in time.

It had been another full day. Revisiting Dolwyddelan, Harlech, and Criccieth were wonderful, but the highlight of the day was definitely our stop at remote Castell y Bere. It was this visit, plus visits to other to Welsh-built castles on previous trips, that tipped the scales and made me finally realize Welsh-built castles were my favorite. And I still feel this way! (No disrespect to Edward's castles...well...maybe just a little.)    

We had lots of activities planned for the following day that would have us leaving in the early morning and not returning to Betws-y-Coed until well after dark. We began by exploring a couple of castles in the northeast. First up was Flint Castle. It took us about an hour and a half drive to get there, this time using the A470 to the A55 across north Wales. The castle was built by King Edward I (Boo!) and his master mason James of St George. Significantly, Flint was the first of Edward's castles in Wales. Construction began in 1277 using a strategic location that was only one day's march from Chester. As was the case with most of Edward's other castles, Flint could be resupplied by water as it lies along the River Dee. In 1282 Welsh forces under the command of Dafydd ap Gruffydd, brother of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, besieged the castle in an attempted uprising, and In 1294 Flint was attacked again during the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn. However Flint's probably most famous because in 1399 the fleeing and embattled King Richard II was captured here by Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, and the future King Henry IV (Boo!).

We parked the car in the public car park next to the castle's Great Tower or Donjon. What we noticed immediately was Flint's low-lying position next to the river, a stark contrast with most of Edward's other castles that enjoy elevated positions. The other obvious thing we noticed was the somewhat drab and advanced ruinous state of the castle. Flint is open to the public and there was no caretaker or admissions hut on site. The grounds of the castle are a popular party spot, and we noticed empty beer cans, other trash, and remnants of a small fires inside. We also saw a lot of dog waste as the castle is apparently popular with dog walkers. Even the Cadw castle information sign was covered with graffiti, making it difficult to read. A shame for such a historic castle. It seemed like poor Flint definitely needed somebody or some organization to step up and help restore its dignity.

We entered the castle over a modern bridge and proceeded through the inner gatehouse. In medieval times the gatehouse was protected by a turning bridge and portcullis. From here we entered the Inner Ward, now devoid of its buildings. Most of the curtain wall is gone at Flint (or down to ground-level footings), with the exception of the stretch of wall between the Southwest Tower and the Great Tower. We spent some time exploring the Great Tower, which had stairs and a platform at the top. Here we found a sign mentioning Richard II and his fate that played out here. For me it was one of those "historical pause" moments as I soaked in the atmosphere of the place that, arguably, was the beginning of the Lancastrian dynasty. Pretty important stuff! One thing that was interesting about Flint was the thickness of the curtain wall and towers. The surviving stretch curtain wall looked like they were about 6 feet thick (an estimation) and had five arrow-loops still guarding the Outer Ward of the castle. We completed our tour and headed back to the car to start towards our next destination. I was glad we visited Flint. It's an historically significant site, being the first of the "Edwardian Castles" and because of the castle's association with King Richard II. At the same time I couldn't help feeling a bit sad due to Flint's obvious lack of attention and care. I can only hope things have gotten better there since our visit.  

Below: View of the Northeast Tower at Flint from near the Great Tower

Next we visited lovely Ewloe Castle, just 7 miles from Flint. Ewloe is a lesser-known and smaller castle with little known history. It was one of the last castles to be built by the native Princes of Wales. It is thought that it was originally built by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, and possibly added to by his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. The castle was constructed using locally quarried sandstone and was was abandoned at the beginning of the invasion of Wales by Edward I in 1277.

We found a signpost for the castle near the town of Ewloe and parked the car in a lay-by opposite. A single, small "Cadw" sign pointed the way through an open, grassy field towards the woods, where we knew the castle was located. We just love castles that are just a bit off the beaten track! We crossed the open field and entered the woods, following a discernible yet not well-trodden path. The first thing that impressed us was the serenity of the location. After only a couple of minutes in the woods we suddenly came upon the castle, its honey-colored Welsh Tower surrounded by a curtain wall in the Upper Ward. The path then brought around the curtain wall of the Lower Ward where we saw the ruins of the round West Tower. Continuing on we came to the modern entrance to the castle, a set of steep wooden stairs at the bottom of a rock-cut ditch just beyond the Upper Ward. We entered the Lower Ward to view the Welsh D-Tower. Only about three quarters of the tower survives. The side facing the modern entrance to the castle and a bit of the round portion of the "D" are missing. Nevertheless, you can easily walk into the ground-floor of the tower to view surviving windows, doors, and holes for the wooden beams that supported the second story. On the opposite side there are a set of exterior stone stairs (a later addition) that gives you access to the interior of the tower. We climbed these and then followed an interior set of stone stairs to the top of the tower (or close to it) where we got a bird's-eye view of the castle layout and surrounding countryside. After spending some time here admiring the views we returned to ground level. We had packed a picnic lunch and this seemed like the perfect place to enjoy it, sitting in the shadow of the tower. We finished lunch and explored more of the castle. I was a very bad boy and climbed the steep ruined wall of the West Tower to get a peek inside. I then climbed to the top of the tower's lower wall, which was very risky (and/or stupid) but afforded nice views of the D-Tower opposite and both wards of the castle. We then returned to the car via the same woodland path that brought us to this enchanting site. Ewloe was different from any other castle we had seen in Wales. Having visited impressive fortresses like Harlech, Caerphilly, and Chepstow, Ewloe was both a surprise and a breath of fresh air. It once again gave us the opportunity to appreciate Wales' smaller castles. Again those who don't bother visiting some of the lesser-known castles like Ewloe, Dolwyddelan, Dolbadarn, Dinas Bran, and Castell y Bere, are missing out on some of the best Wales has to offer. So the next time you find yourself speeding across the A55 between the castles of Caernarfon, Conwy, Rhuddlan, and Flint, do yourself a favor and take the time to visit Ewloe. Chances are that you too will very much enjoy this different type of Welsh Castle experience.

Below: (1) approaching the castle, (2) the Welsh Tower, (3) view of the ruined West Tower


Our next stop was Nant Mill Wood (Park), just 14 miles south of Ewloe, and part of the Clywedog Valley Trail. The park features a historic corn mill, a waterfall, and beautiful hiking trails along the river and through Nant Wood and Plas Power Wood. However, we were here because I had read that a section of Offa's Dyke Path is found within the park and that's what I wanted to see. Unfortunately, even though I had my trusty OS map with me we were unable to see any clear signs of the dyke. We eventually arrived at what I thought was a section but it was so obscured by overgrown vegetation it was impossible to tell. On the other hand, we still enjoyed a very nice hike along the river and woods, so it was by no means a waste of time.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in the Dee and Ceiriog Valley near Llangollen. We had arranged to meet Dale, a person I had been corresponding with on a Wales-based chat group. In a roundabout way that little group, part of the long-gone Compuserve online service, was responsible for the creation of the Castles of Wales website, after the service banned the use of the Welsh language. That's another long story, the details of which can be found here. We had arranged to meet Dale at the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct later that afternoon. The aqueduct is an arched stone and cast iron structure used by narrowboats, completed in 1805. It's the longest aqueduct in Britain as well as the highest. A towpath runs alongside the watercourse on one side. The aqueduct was designed by civil engineers Thomas Telford and William Jessop, and was one of the first major feats of civil engineering undertaken by Telford. The beautiful scenery here makes it a very popular spot for holiday makers visiting the area as well as people renting (or owning) canal boats. It was fairly busy when we arrived with several boats lined up waiting their turn to go over the aqueduct.

We parked in the lot adjacent to the canal and soon found Dale and his young daughter who was accompanying him. We exchanged pleasantries and began investigating the canal. We walked about half-way along the towpath before turning back. The views from here were beautiful if not a bit terrifying, and I marveled at the fact that on the side of the canal opposite the towpath there was nothing between the canal boats and the edge of the aqueduct other than the valley floor below. (Yikes!) This is certainly not a place with for people who have difficulties with heights! We mentioned that earlier we had failed to locate Offa's Dyke and Dale told us he knew of a section we could see nearby. I don't remember exactly where it was (obviously the border of Wales and England). We parked and after a short walk we arrived at a set stone railroad overpass towers with "Offa's Dyke" carved into concrete blocks at the top of each tower. One tower was in Wales, and the other in England (or Mercia). (I thought the one in Wales looked much better.) A little further along we were able to see a section of what was obviously Offa's Dyke. We viewed a long section of the dyke now reduced to perhaps 10 feet with a ditch in one side. Success! The disappointment of earlier in the day had been appeased.

We then toured the Ceiriog Valley and ended up at a hotel/pub close to Dale's home. Im pretty sure it was the West Arms Hotel (now closed, I think) located in the village of Llanarmon and nestled in a the valley near the River Ceiriog. It was a drop-dead beautiful location. We enjoyed a pint of good ale before saying goodbye. It was great to meet Dale and his daughter, and the memory of our visit with them is one of the fondest we have from our trip. Diolch yn fawr, Dale!

Normally by this time in the afternoon we'd be heading back to Betws and thinking what to do for dinner but (putting on our tacky tourist hat once again) this evening I had made dinner reservations for the Medieval Banquet at Ruthin Castle. Ruthin is (was) a true castle that's been turned into a posh hotel and offering guests and visitors a chance to attend a medieval banquet. If you know where to look you can still find bits of the medieval Ruthin, although most of what you see here today is decidedly modern. Ruthin was built during the late 13th century by Daffydd ap Gruffydd, the brother of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, on a red sandstone ridge overlooking the valley. The castle eventually was granted to the Grey family, which included the infamous Reginald Grey, 3rd Baron of Ruthin (BOO!), the man who historians say sparked the rebellion of Owen Glyn Dwr. Grey and Glyn Dwr were neighbors, and when Grey seized land that Glyn Dwr felt was his, he appealed to Parliament for redress but his appeal was ignored. Things spiraled downward for Glyn Dwr from there and in September of 1400 he and his brothers burned Ruthin starting the Welsh Rebellion against King Henry IV.  Ironically today the hotel offers visitors the Owain Glyndwr Suite!

It has been a long day and we were a bit tired when we arrived at the hotel. We checked in at the front desk and then waited in the lobby along with the other guests before we were escorted into the dining hall. At this point I realized that I had perhaps made a mistake as most of the other guests were wearing nice cloths while my wife and I were still dressed in the shorts, shirts, and tennis shoes we had worn for the entire day. Definitely a fashion faux pas. Nevertheless, despite being underdressed, before going into the Hall "Clive", the "Court Stewart" asked us if we wouldn't mind presiding over the banquet as Lord and Lady of the Manor. Although I could almost feel Glyn Dwr's anger welling up around me, I said yes. The advantage here was that we got to sit at the head of the table in comfortable chairs with far fewer people, and we were served first. I was asked to say something to open the banquet although I can't remember what I said. What I should have done as Lord Ruthin is apologize to Glyn Dwr for all the wrongs I had committed, but I just couldn't think that quickly. (Maybe it was the mead.) In any case, the food was OK although it was a little odd eating with our hands. (We did have a spoon.) Afterwards I was presented with an official certificate declaring that "on 22 May 1995, I had presided as the Baron of the Medieval Banquet at Ruthin Castle." Somehow I felt underwhelmed. We lingered at the hotel a while longer, enjoying a glass of port in the bar before driving (carefully) back to Betws. It had been a full day. Flint Castle, Ewloe Castle, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Ceiriog Valley, Offa's Dyke, and a medieval banquet. Just another interesting day in Wales! 

The following morning we had breakfast at our B&B and walked around town for a bit before departing for our day's adventure. This would be an exciting day because I had decided to hike one of the trails up Mt Snowden. I knew that the hike would likely be my biggest physical challenge of the trip, and I had prepared by working out on an elliptical trainer several times a week for six months in order to improve my cardio and leg strength. I was hiking up by myself while Parthene was taking the train up from Llanberis with the plan of meeting at the summit. I dropped off Parthene near the Snowdon Mountain Railway, then drove to the youth hostel at Pen y Pass just down the road, the starting point for both the Miner's Track and the Pyg Track to Mt Snowden. I chose the 4 1/2 mile Miner's Track because I thought it would be more scenic.

It was a warm sunny day and the hiking conditions were perfect. The Miners’ Track starts at the far left-hand corner of the Pen y Pass car park, opposite the entrance. The first part of the hike was easy. After a gentle half-mile ascent, a sharp right-hand bend in the path revealed the summit of Snowdon flanked by the lesser peaks of Y Lliwedd and Crib Goch. Marvelous. Continuing on fairly level ground I came upon Llyn Teyrn on the left, with some old miners’ barracks near the shore. After another mile and a half I reached Llyn Llydaw, a large and deep-blue lake, built for the copper mine in the 1850s, which I crossed via a stone causeway. From here the incline steepened and I eventually reached Glaslyn, another glacial lake, with more old barracks beside it. I had been hiking for a while and this seemed like a good place to stop and rest. The spot was idyllic, a pretty blue lake framed by green hills and mountains, complete with rustic stone ruins and sheep. Not bad. Most people who do the Miner's Track hike to the lake, spend some time exploring the ruins (as I did) then return to the hostel. It really is a beautiful spot. My plan, however, was to climb up from here and join the Pyg Track that had been running parallel above me for some of the hike. I could see right away that it was a pretty steep climb and I couldn't see any obvious way up. No track or path to guide me. What I did see was a steep mountain of loose scree between me and the track above. Oh well. I picked a place and started up. I had my video camera with me and had been filming most of the way, but I wisely put the camera in my backpack for my ascent. This was certainly the most tricky part of the hike. The going was slow and I had to stop several times to keep from sliding back down. I eventually made it to the upper trail where I took a well-deserved rest. While I was resting a young couple who were hiking the Pyg Track came over and said they enjoyed watching me struggle up the scree and felt pretty sure that I wasn't going to make it. (Thanks a lot!) They told me that I had missed the usual path up from the Miner's Track that would have been easier. Oh well. I didn't see it, and, even when they pointed it out it didn't seem that much better. Actually they were very nice and Parthene and I met them again later at the summit.

From here the trail was less perilous but more physically demanding. I had joined the Pyg Track at what is called the Intersection, which is marked by a standing stone. From here it's exactly one mile to the summit, about another hour for me. I had already been hiking for about three hours. The next part of the route was a hard, steep climb, with some challenging loose sections. About a half mile later I reached the Zig-zags and decided this was a good place to rest. By now I had climbed high above the lake and looked back to admire its beauty from an elevated position. The Zig-zags are exactly that; a zig-zag, steep section of trail designed to alleviate a steeper direct assault. This was the last challenging section of the hike (and man was it steep!). Beyond here the trail became more narrow and the track eventually emerged on the ridge at Bwlch Glas. From here I saw my first full view of the west side of Mt Snowden, a truly beautiful sight. The Pyg Track then joined the Llanberis Path, which originates in the town where I had dropped off Parthene. This is also where the train reaches its farthest point up the mountain. Parthene was already waiting for me, talking with another hiker, probably asking where I was most likely to have fallen down the mountain. We hiked the final third of a mile to the summit together. This is the highest point in Wales, and the views from here are truly spectacular. We sat near the summit and I unpacked our picnic lunch, one of our most enjoyable picnics ever. As we were enjoying our packed lunch a mountain rescue helicopter appeared and began flying back and forth across the summit, and I thought to myself I was glad they weren't looking for me!

After remaining at the summit for about an hour we started our trek back down. I had read that climbing down could be tricky because your ankles and legs would be tired from the hike up and they were right on the money. I made sure that I had worn decent ankle braces just for this reason. Although it was difficult, Parthene did a great job of hiking down although we took our time and I was able help her at the tricky places. We even somehow managed to make it back down the scree to the Miner's Track, slipping and sliding a bit of the way. We definitely felt relieved when we finally landed back on the flat trail below, and here Parthene was able to see the beauty that I had enjoyed on the way up. We paused for a while at Lake Glaslyn and watched a sheep and her newborn cross the causeway, a little wary of our presence. We were soon back at the hostel, a little tired but definitely elated. We had started in the morning and it was now 5pm, a full day's worth of Snowdonia. That was it for the day. We returned to Betws for a well-deserved rest before heading back into town for dinner. For me, this was an incredible day and I slept well that night. My climb up Mt Snowden has always been one of my favorite memories of Wales (a proud moment), and one I hope I will never forget.

The Miner's Track, Snowdonia, Wales

The following day was our last full day in Wales. Given our hike the previous day we decided to give our legs and feet a rest and stay close to Betws. We began walking around town spending time again at the medieval bridge and enjoying the views of the rushing river below. We visited nearby Swallow Falls, not a particularly high waterfall, but still set in a beautiful location. Back in Betws we explored the lower part of town near The Royal Oak Hotel, and thought that this too might be a nice place to stay on our next visit. We then visited St Michael's Church. Built in the 14th century, St Michael's is the oldest building in Betws-y-Coed. We spent some time admiring the exterior of the church and some of the older grave markers in the large cemetery. Unfortunately the church was not open so we couldn't go inside.  

Next we got in the car and drove about 20 miles east along the A5 to visit Rug Chapel, a most interesting church. Rug was built in 1637 as a private place of worship for the wealthy landowner and royalist governor Colonel William Salusbury. The chapel is rare because it is one of the few Anglican churches whose fixtures and fittings survived the Victorian Gothic revival of the 1840s. The original high church interior survives here virtually untouched. We parked the car and looked at the exterior of the church for a while. Nice, but nothing special. When we went inside, however, we were amazed by the dazzling display of finely carved wood with bright colors. This included a carved and painted hammer beam roof with its original color, brightly painted paneling, and an original wooden chandelier. We found carved, colorful angels and animals adorning the walls and benches. Almost every surface in the chapel seemed to be an extravagant explosion of color. In the Nave we found a somewhat eerie seventeenth century wall painting displaying emblems of death, (a skull), with inscriptions in both Latin and Welsh. A glass case in the Nave holds a copy of the chapel's older bibles along with gold-plated chalices and candlesticks. We had certainly never seen a church like this. It was both wonderful and weird at the same time.

Below: the beautiful interior of Rug Chapel

Heading back towards Betws we stopped at the impressive Conwy Falls, which was much larger than Swallow Falls. Here we could see and feel the power of the water as it tumbled down to the raging river below. We spent the rest of the morning simply driving around Snowdonia and taking in all the beautiful views. It was a cloudy day but we didn't mind because Snowdonia is beautiful no matter what the weather. We had become enchanted by the landscape; steep, green hills and mountains strewn with rocks, waterfalls and streams, picturesque farms with stone fencing, and fields of sheep. We took a final look at Dolbadarn Castle from a distance, which looked particularly gloomy on this day. Returning to Betws we had a pub lunch at the Ty Gwyn Hotel, enjoying a pint of real ale and a Ploughman's plate. After lunch we did more of the same; driving around Snowdonia stopping here and there to get out and admire the views, and doing some final shopping in Betws in preparation for our departure the following morning.

We got up early the next morning and had breakfast at our B&B. We said our goodbyes to Clive and Monty; both had been wonderful hosts during our week's stay. Although we were looking forward to the next part of our trip we really didn't want to leave. Snowdonia had unexpectedly captured our hearts and we had come to understand why this corner of Wales is so special to so many people. All of our time here was wonderful, but if I had to pick my favorite moments it would absolutely be my hike up Snowdonia, followed by our visits to Castell Dinas Bran and Castell y Bere. My hike up the Miner's Track had been an experience I will never forget. And, having now visited about half a dozen castles built by the native princes of Wales, I think I finally understood how important they are in telling the true story of the history of the Welsh people. It's a story that, unfortunately, is often overlooked by people and organizations concentrating on the more touristy castles, and that's shame. I had come to grips with the notion that the real history of Wales is not the one told by its conquerors, but rather by the people who were resisting conquest, and I still feel that way. We headed east down the A5, making one final stop outside Llangollen to admire the valley and Castell Dinas Bran before heading to England. 


We had a fairly long ride ahead of us. Our destination for the final three nights of the trip was The Old Vicarage in Burbage, Wiltshire. We remained in Wales for most of the trip (A5/A49/A465/M4), and it took us most of the day before we arrived at our accommodations. I was determined to visit a couple of additional sites in Wales before heading into England. Out first stop was Tretower Castle and Tretower Court, located about 3 miles northwest of Crickhowell in Mid Wales. Tretower was originally a motte and bailey castle built around 1150. Roger Picard I, replaced the motte with a shell keep, and by about 1230 a tall cylindrical keep was added to the inside of the shell keep. In regards to the site, the Cadw guidebook (Radford & Robinson) tells us:

"At Tretower one is confronted by a particularly interesting group of medieval buildings on two distinct sites. The visitor arrives at Tretower Court, a late medieval defended house, which, perhaps better than any other surviving example, reflects the changes in fashion and taste of the wealthy landowners in Wales between 1300 and 1700. However, this house itself was a direct successor of an earlier castle stronghold just 200 yards to the north-west. Together, they demonstrate the transition from castle to domestic residence, and thereby reflect important changes from a situation of warfare and defence in the early Middle Ages, to one of peaceful and more settled times in later centuries."

We arrived at the castle which is right next door to a working farm. The site is dominated by the large, tall tower mentioned above. A good section of the curtain wall surrounding the tower survives as does the base of another large tower. We parked the car and began exploring the site. The tower still has traces of its fine windows and we were able to view the interior of the tower via a wooden set of stairs. Other than the tower and the curtain wall there are not many ruins to explore here, although the tower by itself is a very impressive survival and with seeing. We didn't visit Tretower Court and I don't remember if it was open. This was a quick stop for us as we had two other places to visit before heading to Wiltshire. 

Our next stop was at White Castle, 7 miles east of Abergavenny in Monmouthshire. Forever linked with nearby Skenfrith and Grosmont as one of the "Three Castles," White is easily the most impressive of the three. The castle's massive defenses are in sharp contrast to this beautiful section of mid-Wales. It seems a bit curious that this large Marcher fortress is not as well known as other castles in the region. One of the great things about the castle is that the outer bailey defenses are largely intact, and form an impressive stronghold in their own right. The walls of the outer bailey are constructed in stone, though it is likely the walls were originally of timber. There were towers at various points along the walls that were manned by archers, and the ward had its own gatehouse, the entrance to the castle complex today. Some of the original arrow-loops of the wall-towers remain. The castle is pear-shaped and sits on a mound completely surrounded by a deep-cut moat, while the outer bailey lies at the front of the castle outside the moat. A high curtain wall connects the castle's six large, round towers. The two front towers form the 13th-century gatehouse and the 12th-century curtain apparently survives to its original height. The gatehouse at White Castle rivals some of the most impressive Norman gatehouses in Wales, and it is apparent from the condition of the towers and walls, that this is one Welsh castle that was never purposely "slighted" after it was abandoned.

Access to the castle was via a drawbridge over the moat, which surely would have been drawn up in times of attack. Today, much of the moat is still filled with water, giving visitors an idea of what one would have faced in attempting to storm this formidable fortress. After entering the castle via the drawbridge and examining the impressive remains of the interior of the gatehouse towers, you are greeted by the surprisingly large inner ward or courtyard. Although the remains of the inner ward buildings are slight, enough detail remains to give visitors an idea of the construction of the interior buildings. White Castle also allows visitors the opportunity to climb to the top of its gatehouse tower, a vantage that affords excellent views of the outer bailey, moat, inner ward and the beautiful surrounding countryside. It is certainly the best place to survey the castle's position, and gives one a much better idea of the overall defensive plan of the castle. One cannot fail to be impressed by this view. Although the castle saw a brief revival of fortunes during the Glyn Dwr uprising of the early 14th century, White Castle, like Grosmont and Skenfrith, was largely abandoned after that crisis passed. Fortunately all three castles remained for a time as local centers of administration, estate management, and revenue collecting. The records show that monies were spent for the repair and upkeep of the castle through the end of the Middle Ages, and this has, no doubt, contributed to the castle's fine state of preservation.

Our final stop in Wales we revisited Raglan Castle. We were here for the first time the previous year, and, like so many other places in Wales, we were keen to return. Raglan was our first experiences with a medieval castle that was later transformed into a Tudor showcase or palace. The castle is probably most closely associated with William ap Thomas, who fought with King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. In 1426, ap Thomas was knighted by Henry VI. Sir William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, was the next owner of the castle, and it is Herbert who is responsible for Raglan's distinctive Tudor-styling. The castle was also the boyhood home of Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII.

We approached Raglan's Great Gatehouse, in my estimation the most handsome castle entrance is all of Wales. Going through we found ourselves in the Pitched Stone Court. From here we could see the rear of the gatehouse complex which at one time held Raglan's extensive library. The ruined Office Wing was to our right and the Kitchen Tower directly in front of us. The  second floor of the tower retains some of its fine detail, including an ornate window. The kitchen is dominated by two large fireplaces for cooking. Next we visited the Hall and Buttery, the most complete of the surviving apartments. The surviving windows and doorways here provide visitors with a glimpse of some of Raglan's fine surviving detail. We visited our other favorite places  including the Hall that retains it coat of arms of the 3rd Earl of Worcester, the Fountain Court with The Grand Stair, The Long Gallery, and, of course Raglan's Great Tower. I had to cross the drawbridge and climb to the top of the tower for those remarkable views, of not only the countryside, but of Raglan's fine surviving detail from the castle's upper levels. We also visited the moat and the Apron Wall with its six small turrets. There's so much to explore here that you really need half a day to see everything, but this was another quick stop on our way to England. Still, even a quick stop here is worthwhile.

Part III: Whiltshire

We left Wales and headed east along the M4 to reach Burbage and our accommodations. We had booked a 3-night stay at The Old Vicarage, a lovely Victorian-period B&B 6 miles from Marlborough, and lying next to All Saints Church. The house was filled with comfortable period furniture and had a pretty garden in the back. We had a lovely en-suite room on the 2nd floor overlooking the garden with a queen-size bed and two comfortable chairs. We unpacked and decided to have a quick look at All Saints Church next-door. A reference to the church in the Domesday Book indicates that a church stood here in 1086 and this was probably a Saxon foundation associated with the 11th century estate of Burbage. The church is Grade II listed. This was yet another historic English church featuring a good size Nave with stone arches supported by stone columns. There was a large stained glass window behind the alter. Later that evening we headed into Marlborough for dinner before calling it a day. New adventures awaited us tomorrow as we had departed the Middle Ages and were entering the Neolithic Age.  

We spent our final two days in Britain visiting or viewing some of the famous monuments found in and around the Salisbury Plain, including Avebury, Silbury Hill, Stonehenge, and The West Kennet Long Barrow. We also made time for visits to Castle Combe, Malmesbury Abbey, and Lacock Abbey and Village. Our first stop on day 1 was the Avebury Stone Circle. Avebury is a Neolithic henge monument containing three stone circles, around the village of Avebury in Wiltshire. One of the best-known prehistoric sites in Britain, it contains the largest megalithic stone circle in the world. Constructed over several hundred years in the third millennium BC, during the Neolithic, or New Stone Age, the monument comprises a large henge with a large outer stone circle and two separate smaller stone circles situated inside the center of the monument. Its original purpose is unknown. Avebury was larger than I expected, and, although the large standing stones are impressive, I was almost more impressed with the wide, deep ditch that surrounded he site. We spent quite a bit of time here walking between the stones and up and down the banks. The most challenging thing was keeping all the sheep poo off our boots! Actually, the herd of sheep grazing around the stones added to the beauty of the site. After finishing our tour we enjoyed lunch at the Stones Restaurant in Avebury, a Grade II listed farm building that offers plenty of outdoor tables for enjoying the scenery.

On the way to Stonehenge we stopped on the side of the road to film Silbury Hill, prehistoric artificial chalk mound that's the tallest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe and one of the largest in the world. I don't think you're allowed to climb on the hill although we saw people who were doing just that. Next it was onto Stonehenge, that iconic site steeped in legend and certainly one of the most famous monuments in the world. I always wondered why Stonehenge didn't make the list as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Stonehenge consists of an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones, each around 13 feet high, topped by connecting horizontal lintel stones. Inside is a ring of smaller bluestones (from Wales!). Inside these are the famous trilithons, two bulkier vertical sarsens joined by one lintel. It really is an impressive monument, however the negatives of visiting the site were soon apparent. There are lots of tourists here (including us) and with cars buzzing up and down the road nearby, this is not a peaceful spot. I can see why people come in off hours when things are a little more tranquil. Also, you can only view Stonehenge from a path circling the monument; you really can't get close to it. Still, we enjoyed visiting what is definitely England's most famous ancient monument.

Below: Avebury, Silbury Hill, and Stonehenge

Our final stop of the day was at historic Salisbury Cathedral in the city of Salisbury. The original cathedral was located at Old Sarum, about 2 miles north of the present city. The present cathedral was built by the Earl and Countess of Salisbury beginning in 1220. By 1258 the nave, transepts and choir were complete. In the 17th century, Christopher Wren helped restore the cathedral by designing measures to strengthen the sagging central pillars, and significant changes to the cathedral were made by the architect James Wyatt in 1790. We parked the car near the city center next to a canal and park and began making our way to the cathedral. On the way we passed under the cathedral's medieval North Gate with its coat-of-arms and crenellated top. There were lots of shops here and the street was busy. I spent some time filming the exterior of the cathedral before we headed inside. Here we found an immense space; the cathedral's Nave with its tall stone pillars supporting a series of arches and a painted and decorated roof. There were a lot of fine tomb effigies scattered about, including, Robert Lord Hungerford with a dog at his feet, William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury, the builder of the cathedral and the half brother of King John, and Lionel Woodville, brother of Elizabeth the wife of King Henry IV. We visited the Cloisters and then the Chapter House. We were there to see one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta. We had seen another of the four at Lincoln Cathedral the previous year. We also found remnants of the original cathedral, Old Sarum, including the carved tomb lid of Saint Osmund, Bishop, and the builder of the first cathedral. There was a lot to see here and we took as much time as we could. This was the third cathedral we had visited on our trip, and, although Worcester (King John) and Gloucester (Edward II) had more famous tomb effigies, we thought Salisbury had a better collection of effigies. By this time it was getting late and we decided to head back to the Old Vicarage and make plans for dinner.

Salisbury Cathedral: (1) the North Gate, (2) cathedral interior, (3) tomb effigy of William Longespee

Our first visit the following morning was the chocolate-box Cotswold village of Castle Combe. There as once a Roman villa close to the village, and a settlement was listed here n the Domesday Book of 1086. The village takes its name from a 12th-century motte-and-bailey castle, now all but vanished. The village has a total of 107 Grade II listed buildings. We spent some time just walking around the village admiring all the period buildings. At the village center we found the Market Cross, and nearby is St Andrew’s Church. St Andrews dates from the 13th century, although most of what you see today is from the 15th century. The interior of the church consists of a nave, chapels to the north-east and south-east, aisles and a south porch. We saw the famous faceless medieval clock, a large mechanical clock that some say is the oldest working clock in England. The clock used to reside in the bell tower but was moved to the Nave in 1984. We also saw the 13th century memorial dedicated to Sir Walter de Dunstanville, Baron of Castle Combe, in the Lady Chapel. His effigy is cross legged indicating that Dunstanville served in the crusades. After spending a little more town in the town, it was off to our next site.

Castle Combe

Malmesbury Abbey is a religious house dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul, located about 12 miles northeast of Castle Combe. It is one of the few English houses with a continuous history from the 7th century through to the dissolution of the monasteries. The current Abbey was substantially completed by 1180. The tall spire, and the tower it was built upon, collapsed in a storm around 1500 destroying much of the church, including two-thirds of the nave and the transept. We parked our car near the town center and headed towards the abbey. The first thing we noticed was that the abbey ruins were still attached to the rebuilt abbey, an interesting juxtaposition. We spent time outside the abbey exploring the graveyard and admiring the tall, cathedral-like spires on the lower roof. We then entered through a wide Norman arched doorway. The doorway itself was engulfed by a series of intricately-carved arches, one of the most impressive we've ever seen. Inside, a series of wide columns supported the arches and vaulted ceiling. The interesting thing about Malmesbury is that it is something of Saxon historical treasure being associated with several famous Saxon abbots, including, Aldhelm (d.709), scholar and poet and first Old English writer of Latin, Cuthbert, Æthelweard I & II, and Eadwulf. In addition, in 939 Æthelstan, king of Wessex and of the English was buried here. Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great was one of the Abbey's early patrons. He gave money to expand the church and also donated books. It's easy to locate Æthelstan's tomb and effigy which is prominent in the abbey's north aisle. The tomb is actually empty. According to William of Malmesbury Athelstan's body was exhumed and reburied in the Abbot's private garden. As we continued our tour inside the abbey organist began playing; I think he was practicing which added a nice touch to the atmosphere. We then continued our exploration outside where we got a closer view of the ruined bits. We found parts of the ruins in a small wooded area below the abbey, including a section of wall with decorated ornamental columns. Afterwards we walked through the town and enjoyed a late morning coffee and cake at "The Whole Hog" cafe before departing.

Malmesbury Abbey

Lacock Abbey is a National Trust property that was founded in the early 13th century by The Countess of Salisbury and is located in the village of Lacock. The building or buildings are a combination of medieval abbey and later manor house. The house was built over a portion of the old abbey cloisters. We had seen our share of medieval abbeys and stately manor houses, but never one occupying the same space. We were able to explore the medieval remnants of the abbey and then tour the stately manor house. We approached the site via a walkway next to grazing cattle in front of the abbey. We explored outside first, in particular, the abbey Cloisters with its vaulted ceiling, decorative corbels (some heraldic), and gargoyles. Next we visited the Chapter House which contained interesting decorative fragments of the abbey displayed around the perimeter of the room and in glass cases. These included carved corbels, medieval floor tiles, and large slabs of carved stone, including the marble hearthstone of Nicholas Longespee, Bishop of Salisbury (1292-97).     

Next we visit the village next to the abbey. Lacock village is also a National Trust property. It has been preserved in its original 17th and 18th century form (with a few modern conveniences added), and visiting here was definitely like stepping back in time. Famous films have used the village as a backdrop including the BBC productions of Pride and Prejudice and Cranford. We walked up and down the streets and visited the National Trust shop for additional information. It was lunchtime so we decided to have a pub lunch and a pint at the Red Lion, one of the village's period buildings. A large fireplace dominates inside and it was busy when we arrived. Afterwards we walked the rest of the village. We visited the church which is dedicated to a Norman saint, St. Cyriac, and dates from the 14th century. Inside we found several later monuments to local landowners, some of which were quite impressive. We spent a bit more time in the village before departing for our final destination of the day, the West Kennet Long Barrow. On the way we stopped to view The Westbury White Horse, situated just below an Iron Age hill fort. Although some claim that is was carved in Saxon times to honor Alfred The Great, most scholars believe it dates from the late 18th century.

Our final stop was at the West Kennet Long Barrow, a chambered tomb near Avebury. The tomb was built about 3500 BC and remained in use for about a thousand years. It is thought that members of a local ruling clan were buried here. We parked the car along a lane next to a farmer's field. The site is quite close to Silbury Hill which we saw looming across a green field as we made our way to the barrow. The well-defined path to the barrow was lined with small stone chips, so the hike was easy. The tomb has a large standing stone at the front which we assumed was once used to block the entrance. We went inside where the light dimmed and walked down the passageway with rooms and niches off to the side. The passageway ended in circular room. Both the passageway and the room were tall enough for a normal-sized person to stand. Venturing back outside I decided to walk on top of the barrow. It was a very windy day, so my walk across the top was short. It did, however allow for nice views of the surrounding countryside from an elevated position. That was it. We returned to the Old Vicarage and later enjoyed dinner in Marlborough again before returning to London the following morning for our flight back home.

Below: (1) Lacock Abbey, and (2) the West Kennet Long Barrow

As was the case with our trip the previous year, we enjoyed pretty much everything we did on our 1995 trip to England and Wales. We had an ambitious itinerary that still allowed us enough time to linger at any site we felt merited a longer visit. Our time in the Cotswolds was magical. Our favorite stop there was probably Kenilworth Castle, however the location of our B&B, Pear Tree Cottage, in the lovely village of Wilmcote was also one of our favorite places. In Wales we had immersed ourselves in the countryside of the Snowdonia Mountains for a week and were captivated by its history and grandeur. Castell Dinas Bran (Dee Valley), Ewloe Castle, and especially Castle y Bere, were magical places, however it was my hike up Snowdonia that will always be the highlight of the trip for me. We had managed to see a lot of Wales and England in the last two years. Would we make it three in a row in 1996?

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