There are two things that I love more than anything when it comes to adventuring; the first comes in the form of beautiful countryside and wild national parks, an obvious staple of Love Our Adventures. The second subject I absolutely adore is history, the main thing that will drag me away from the rolling hills or lush fields and into the urban sprawl is the promise of black-and-white architecture, cobbled streets and above all else: a castle. Castles trigger my inner 6-year old to bubble up with glee, with fanciful thoughts of besieging armies and bustling medieval markets; whenever I picture the long and varied history of the United Kingdom, the castle and bustling market town attached is the first thing I envision. Caernarfon castle may just about be the perfect example of what I want from a castle, combining a perfect little historical town with gorgeous surroundings and views over the Menai Straits in one direction and views to the Snowdonian mountains in the other. From the moment you step into Castle Square to the second you scale the Eagle Tower, everything about this castle is inspiring enough to bring the inner 6-year old out of anyone!
A brief history
Before we get into the beauty of this castle, first let us cover an abridged history to give some context to what you are going to explore. Between the constant threat of invasion from the Marcher Lords, Norman invasion and infighting due to succession complications, Wales has a long, complex and bloody history. With consistent war and occupation constantly changing borders and leaders it was Northern Wales, in particular Gwynedd, that had become one of the last remaining areas of resistance to English occupation. Often Kings and Princes would unify some or all of Wales under a single banner while continuing to fight back against occupation and attempt to retain Welsh independence. Throughout the 11th, 12th and 13th century there was constant flux between English attacks against Welsh independence and treaties forming a tenuous peace only to be broken within a few years. That would be until the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and his brother Dafydd ap Gruffudd, the last independent Prince of Wales, at the hands of King Edward I; Edward had taken it upon himself to solidify control over Wales after various tensions had arisen between the two nations, he would invade in 1277 and eventually overwhelm Welsh forces by 1283. While several rebellions would take place in the years following occupation Welsh subjugation had begun from this point, with the title Prince of Wales officially becoming the heir to the English throne's title.
With the overview of the politics covered, now onto the castle. Some form of fortification had existed in this area for centuries prior to the construction of the current castle; the remains of the Roman Caer Rufeinig Segontium can be found only half a mile away, this fort acted as the centre to the settlement Segontium and can be dated back to the 1st Century. By the 11th Century, the Normans had built a Motte nearby which would eventually be absorbed into the future castle. Caernarfon Castle as we know it today was constructed in the late 13th century as part of Edward I's Ring of Iron, a number of fortifications built around north Wales as a means of control over the Welsh residents post-conquest. It was seen as an important measure to have these imposing structures reaffirming their control, considering North Wales had been the most resistive to English control. The castle and adjacent settlement all but replaced the original Welsh settlement, and only English settlers were allowed to reside within the walls. There is a lot more to the history of Caernarfon considering its place as an effective capital of North Wales, rebellions would target the castle often including one in 1294 that successfully, albeit briefly, managed to capture the town. The situation would become less hostile around the time the Tudors came to the throne, being a family Welsh in origin descended from the Tudors of Penmynydd. On your visit to the castle, there is a wealth of information regarding its construction and history, but I do recommend doing a little research into the history of Wales and especially that of relations between the Welsh and the English; it is a fascinating part of this island's history that often overlooked, that may give you a different perspective especially when touring these remarkable castles.
Exploring the castle
You cannot have the perfect castle without an outer defence wall protecting the local populous, and Caernarfon does not disappoint with a ring wall encircling a section of the town to the north. The outer wall is surprisingly well intact, rivalling the likes of Chester or York, unfortunately, you cannot explore along the tops of the walls but this was done to aid their preservation so I completely understand. The outer walls feature eight towers and two major gatehouses at either end of High Street (there are a few extra road entrances dotted around, but they lack the grandeur of the main gatehouses), with a particular highlight being the seafront section from the site of the Water Gate to the HMS Conway anchor, this is just a beautiful area to sit in and soak up the sounds of the ocean. If you fancy a tipple you could even stop off at the Anglesey Arms right next to the castle walls along the waterfront, a pleasant little black and white building jutting out from the city walls. One thing you must do is cross the Afon Seiont via Pont Yr Aber and view the castle from across the estuary, anywhere along the road near Caernarfon park will give you perfect views of both the main structure and the city walls stretching out from it.
As previously mentioned, the castle square is one of the best places to go just to enjoy the sheer size and imposing nature of Caernarfon Castle; take the time to walk the square, a beautifully maintained lightly cobbled plaza, with plenty of places to eat and drink before venturing into through those castle gates. Standing in the square at the foot of the castle walls, with the North East tower looming above you it is hard not to feel tiny against this great stone fortress. Once you're ready you can find the main entrance by proceeding down Castle Ditch and up the ramps, over the moat and through King's gate. Pay your admission, grab your guidebook and get exploring!
You are now in one colossal courtyard, with well-manicured greens and cold stone walls encircling you; this wouldn't have always been the case, with this area divided roughly evenly between the upper and lower wards (or outer and inner Baileys respectively) - the lower ward is recognisable by the still visible footings of the castle hall. I'm sure you will figure this out the second you enter but as you explore the wards you should head to the top of the upper ward, near the Queen's Gate, so you can enjoy the long views over the terraced lawns all the way to the Eagle Tower. Every section of the wards has something worth admiring, at the very least standing below the looming polygonal towers and crenellated parapets can trigger the imagination as to what living here must have been like in the 13th century.
At this point, you have only just begun to scratch the surface of what Caernarfon has on offer, with a maze of interconnected walkways and scalable towers that will see you exploring for some time. Walks can take you either through the walls or atop them, and if you find the heights dizzying or the tunnels claustrophobic you can always escape back to the wards and take one of the many other entrances dotted around the lawns. As with many Cadw locations, there are exhibitions and films on offer to educate and entertain with a highlight being the Royal Welch Fusiliers Regimental Museum. The museum is spread across two towers of Caernarfon Castle and admission is included in the price; in the displays, you can learn the history of the Welsh infantry regiment, from their origins during the 18th Century Marlborough's Wars all the way through till modern-day operations. Every display gives an idea of the experiences of the regiment along with detailing their typical gear, traditions and music.
It goes without saying that no visit to a castle is complete without a trip to the top, and at Caernarfon, you are certainly spoilt for choice; if you were to scale only one tower then one of the turrets atop the Eagle Tower is a great choice, not only is it the tallest and most prominent of towers but with the stunning views out over the Menai Straits you will find plenty to love. That being said, if you have the time you should scale as many of the towers as you can, each one offers a unique viewpoint over Caernarfon town and the surrounding landscape that means everyone is worth seeing in its own right. Plus, scaling every tower you can is a great workout and you will have unquestionably earned your lunch by the time you have finished!
Every castle I visit has something to love about it, be it their design, surroundings or rich history. But there is something about Caernarfon that makes it extra special, it combines all of those factors to become a contender for my favourite castle out of them all. Not only does the town of Caernarfon compliment the castle perfectly, with its charming cobbled roads and colourful shopfronts, but its the castle's location on the Seiont estuary and the Menai Straits that frame this gorgeous structure in a picture-perfect way. Viewed from any angle, Caernarfon does not disappoint making for a perfect day out for anyone looking to explore a little bit of history combined with a lot of beauty. By the end of your tour not only might you have learned a thing or two, but maybe your inner 6-year old will be excited to find the next castle adventure.