Find Your Epic : Visiting Caernarfon Castle

findyourepic visiting caernarfon castle on our weekend trip to snowdonia - Night shot

On our recent Weekend break to Snowdonia, we spent an entertaining Saturday morning exploring the castle of Caernarfon. Gary and I are big fans of short weekend breaks and we returned to the city feeling fully recharged and relaxed. This mini break in the countryside only spanned three days, but it helped remind us how relaxing it is to get out of London for a few days. As always, we attempted to cram as many activities into this short trip as we possibly could.

Visit Wales had booked a ribride for us on Saturday afternoon. That left a couple of hours in the morning to explore the town of Caernarfon and its castle. Eager to see as much as possible on Saturday we got up early and grabbed breakfast at 8 am. We then dashed to the castle to give ourselves enough time to see all the sites before our ribride in the afternoon.

>Read the review of our Bed and Breakfast in Snowdonia

> Read about our Rib-Ride down the Menai Strait

> Read more about Visting Caernarfon Castle

LOCATION OF CAERNARFON CASTLE

THE HISTORY OF CAERNARFON CASTLE

THE CONSTRUCTION OF CAERNARFON CASTLE

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Gwynedd’s county town, Caernarfon, is home to Wales’s most famous castle and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There has been a castle in Caernarfon since the late 11th Century, but in 1283 King Edward I began to replace the previous 11th century motte-and-bailey castle with the massive stone structure that still stands today. Although the castle wasn’t fully completed when construction works stopped in 1330, Caernarfon is one of the most striking buildings the Middle Ages have left us.

THE BIRTH OF THE PRINCE OF WALES AT CAERNARFON CASTLE

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To some extent Caernarfon’s significant status was determined on the 25th April 1284 by the birth of a prince within the castle walls. When his ten-year older brother died four months later, the infant became King Edward I’s eldest son. In 1301 Edward of Caernarfon was crowned prince of Wales and endowed with the rule and revenues of all the Crown’s Welsh lands. From this date onwards the title of Prince of Wales has been accorded to the eldest son of the reigning monarch. You can imagine how the Welsh felt about that!

CAERNARFON CASTLE FALLS INTO A STATE OF DISREPAIR

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For the next two centuries, the arrangements established by Edward I for the governance of the country remained in place. During this time the castle was constantly garrisoned, and Caernarfon was effectively the capital of north Wales.

Tension between the Welsh and their English conquerors rose and led to the the Glyndŵr Rising in 1400. Caernarfon Castle and its surrounding town were besieged by the Welsh army in 1401 and again in 1403 and 1404. .

The ascension of the Tudor dynasty to the English throne in 1485 heralded a change in the way Wales was administered. The Tudors were Welsh in origin, and their rule eased hostilities between the Welsh and English. As a result, castles such as Caernarfon, which provided secure centres from which the country could be administered, became less important. They were neglected, and in 1538 it was reported that many castles in Wales had fallen into a state of disrepair.

While Caernarfon Castel’s walls remained in good condition, features that required more maintenance (such as the roofs) were in a state of decay. Their timber completely rotten. The castle had also been stripped of anything valuable, such as glass and iron.

In 1660 the castle had fallen into such a state of disrepair that the government ordered the castle and town walls to be dismantled and demolished. Fortunately, the work was aborted early on and may never have started.

CAERNARFON CASTLE RISES FROM THE ASHES

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During the Industrial Revolution the port and town of Caernarfon prospered through the slate trade. Caernarfon’s population more than doubled from 1801 to 1851. A programme of repairs was undertaken at the government expense and the castle was rescued from ruin. The renovation of the castle was vigorously pursued in the last thirty years of the nineteenth center, under the close direction of the deputy-constable Sir Lllewelyn Turner. The appearance of today’s castle owes much to his vision and pertinacity.

Further repairs were undertaken in connection with the investiture ceremony of the Prince of Wales in 1911 and in 1986 Caernarfon Castle and the town walls were inscribed on the World Heritage List as a historic site of outstanding universal value.

In 1969 Caernarfon Castle was once again in 1969 used for the investiture of the current Prince of Wales, Prince Charles

THE ARCHITECTURE OF CAERNARFON CASTLE

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Situated by the sea and on the banks of the River Seiont, the castle is an imposing presence, with some fantastic views from the turrets. It is actually part of a group of imposing and majestic castles, built by Edward I in North Wales as a statement of his power. Caernarfon however, undoubtedly stands apart from the others in its sheer scale, nobility and its architectural detail.

The plan of the castle resembles a figure eight and was originally divided in two. The towers and connecting walls survive mostly intact. The courtyard buildings however have been destroyed and only their foundations remain.

Although it is difficult to assess how far such a building as Caernarfon Castle owes its characteristic form to its designer and how far to the king and his circle, we can state with certainty that James of St George played a significant role in the construction of the current castle. James of St George was a masterful and highly paid master mason and military engineer employed by Edward I to oversee the work at the castle. He had at least sixteen years experience directing the construction of castles from the Rhone to Mont Cenis.

From the very beginning Caernarfon Castle was conceived as a fortress-palace of special significance – brimming with symbolism. The previous 11th century motte-and-bailey castle had long been associated with an age-old folk memory recounted in Macsen Wledig’s Romance of the Mabinogion. King Edward I chose to lay emphasis on to this old tale with architectural features specifically chosen to echo the Walls of Constantinople – such as the colourful masonry banding on Caernafon Castle’s Towers.

VISITING CAERNARFON CASTLE

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Caernarfon Castle is part of Historic Scotland and English Heritage, so if you are a member entry is completely free.  Unfortunately, we forgot to bring our cards. The entrance fee is 7£, very readable if you consider the size of the castle.

There is no set route through the castle and almost all parts of it are accessible. You are free to roam around and explore. There is plenty to discover, with lots of stone spiral staircases leading up to the high turrets, and places to walk along the walls. We spent almost all morning in the castle. Exploring every single nook and cranny. You can climb to the top of almost every tower, but be warned you will need to climb up a lot of very steep and narrow spiral steps.

I would suggest you start your tour of the castle at Kings Gate (the caste’s main entrance) then follow the walls around in an anti-clockwise direction – visiting each tower in turn.

AN ANTI-CLOCKWISE TOUR OF CAERNARFON CASTLE

I would suggest you start your tour of the castle at Kings Gate (the caste’s main entrance) then follow the walls around in an anti-clockwise direction – visiting each tower in turn.

findyourepic visiting caernarfon castle on our weekend trip to snowdonia - Plan

A) KINGS GATE

findyourepic visiting caernarfon castle on our weekend trip to snowdonia - Kings Gate

No building in Britain demonstrates more strikingly the immense strength of medieval fortification than the great twin-towered gateway to Caernarfon. Had the gatehouse been fully completed, intruders would have had a very hard time accessing the castle. They would have had to cross a drawbridge, pass through five doors and under six portcullises, with a right-angled turn as they passed from the main gate-passage to a smaller passage, along the south side of the gatehouse, entering the lower ward over a second drawbridge. Arrowloops and spy holes flank and guard the approach from different levels, while in the vaulting above there are groups of murder holes to threaten assailants. Furthermore water would have been poured down these holes to extinguish any fire that might be started at the gate.

THE UNFINISHED CHAPEL

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As you leave the gatehouse passage turn right towards the lower ward. Near here is the access to the upper part of the gatehouse. A door on the right opens to a stair in the rearward part of the building. This leads up to a wall-passage at first-floor level from which there is a modern footbridge across the northwest gate tower to the room above the main gate-passage. Here a double piscine or sink in the east wall shows that this space was once a chapel. The wall passages  at this level contain arrowloops grouped in such a way that although only six openings are apparent from the castle, double that number of archers could discharge their shafts through them simultaneously. Now return to ground level.

B) THE CASTLE KITCHEN

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To the west of the King’s Gate lies the lower ward. As you walk down towards the Eagle Tower you will come across the site of the castle kitchens. To the left of the kitchen ruins are the remains of settings for two copper cauldrons, with fireplaces below them. Behind them is a cavity, which could have been used for storing dry foods, such as spices. At the bottom of the wall, on the right hand side of this cavity, there is a small hole marking the end of a water channel running from a tank in the Well Tower, and below it there is a drain running off to the left.

C) THE WELL TOWER

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Next to the well chamber, winding steps lead to the upper levels and wall-walks towards the Eagle Tower.

Return to ground level and re-enter the tower by the entrance near the top of the basement steps. From here a passage leads to the chamber containing the 50 foot deep well. Facing the well is a stone seating for a lead lined cistern, which could be kept filled by buckets raised from the well, and from which ran inclined pipes in the thickness of the wall to the nearby kitchen.

There are two entrances to the Well Tower from the courtyard, one at ground level, and the other leading into the basement. First descend the steep steps to the basement. None of the timber floors of the upper storeys have been restored and it is possible to see all four floors and the characteristic details of each rooms from below. A well-guarded gateway at basement level, once allowed water-borne supplies to be brought directly from the ditch to the adjacent kitchen and service rooms.

D) THE EAGLE TOWER

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The Eagle Tower is the greatest of all of Caernarfon Castle’s towers. Everything about it is designed on a magnificent scale. Like the other northern towers it comprises a basement and three storeys.  But it’s group of three lofty turrets give it special distinction.

The ground floor room -approached through a vestibule from the courtyard – is a room of noble proportions. It is currently occupied by an exhibition about the Kings that once graced this castle. In the corner you will see a large hooded fireplace. Doors lead from this main chamber to passages and subsidiary chambers in the thickness of the walls. The little chamber opposite the entrance contained the gear for raising the portcullis of the gate below.

On the first floor the main chamber currently houses an exhibition. To the right of the entrance vestibule, a passage leads to a small rectangular room, said to be the birthplace of the first English Prince of Wales.

E) THE CHAMBERLAIN TOWER

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The Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers occupies the Queen’s Tower and two floors of the Chamberlain Tower. The museum is entered from the ground floor of the Chamberlain Tower and the exhibition leads visitors through a one-way circuit to further displays in the Queen’s Tower.

The Chamberlain tower is one of the smaller towers of the castle. It contains three octagonal rooms. annexed to each room are small rectangular chambers that have been converted into offices.

A stair leads from the second floor to the roof and from there to the top of the turret. Here you will find the roiginal battlements and cresting of the tower.

F) THE GREAT HALL

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The 30 m (100 feet) long Great Hall was proudly stood against the walls between the Queen’s and Chamberlain Towers.

Although little more than foundations survive, the quality o the masonry at the West end with its fine moulded plinth, shows, 5that this must once have been a spectacular building.

The high table would have been located to the right of the building and the buttery and pantry to the left. the hall was once connected directly to the Chamberlain tower by a door to the South-east corner.

G) THE QUEEN’S TOWER

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The Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers occupies the queen’s Tower and two floors of the Chamberlain tower. The museum is entered from the ground floor of the chamberlain tower and the exhibition leads visitors through a one-way circuit to further displays in the Queen’s Tower.

The Queen’s tower has very similar dimensions to the Eagle tower, but only boasts three storeys. The Tower is linked to the Eagle Tower by a length of curtain wall with walkways at two levels. Foundations are the only remains of a building that once leaned against this curtain wall.

A spiral stair, in the North-west corner of the Tower, leads from the courtyard to the roof. From here you can follow another walkway all the way to Queen’s gate.

The roof turret of Queen’s Tower is a lot larger than the other turrets of the castle. It also contains a small hexagonal chamber from which a narrow flight of steps continues to the summit.  A lintel above these steps contains a round hole for the base of a flagstaff – a reminder that this tower was once called Banner Tower.

H) THE BLACK TOWER AND CISTERN TOWER

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You cannot access either of these towers directly from the ground floor. Instead, you need to enter the doorway to the left of the Chamberlain Tower and make your way along the lower wall-passage.

The Black Tower contains two small ten-sided rooms, one above the other, instead of the usual three or four. This is partly because the tower was built against the side of the motte, so that much of what appears as tower externally is in  fact solid foundation.

The stair in the north-west corner gives access to the upper floor, the roof and the surmounting turret. If you want to get some excellent shots of Caernarfon and it’s surrounding area, I highly suggest you make your way up these steps. The views will be worth any discomfort or fear of heights.

You will barely be able to recognise the Cistern tower from the courtyard, as it isn’t much higher than the wall. As with the Black Tower, a door opens directly from the ground floor passage into the lower part of the Cistern Tower, which at this level contains a small hexagonal chamber with three arrowloops towards the South.

Above the vault there is an open stone-lined rainwater tank from which the tower takes its name. the stone outlet channel runs through the thickness of the wall and discharges through a shaft in the queen’s Gate.

I) THE QUEEN’S GATE

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A ground floor passage leads from the Cistern tower to the Queen’s Gate.

This second great gateway was never finished. The elevated position of the gate passage (high above the street outside) was dictated by the height of the earlier motte. Originally the gate would have been approached from outside by a great stone-built ramp with gently graded steps.

Its lofty position made it less vulnerable than the King’s gate and its defences are in consequence less elaborate. It once had a drawbridge and the portcullis above the vault was well protected with murder holes.

A little balcony was built into the opening of the queen’s gate and this is where the Royal family stood in front of their people, in 1969 during the investiture of the current Prince of Wales, Prince Charles.

J) THE NORTH EAST TOWER

This one of the smaller towers of Caernarfon Castle. It is octogonal and has two floors. The ground-floor currently houses a small theatre and movie screen.

The North East Tower is also one of the oldest towers of the castle. It is characterized by the wall-passages of the southern curtain that continue around the outside of the tower but don’t go beyond it.  This type of wall passage was not built inro the northern curtain walls that date back to 1295.

The stair is at the north-west corner and ascends to the top of the turret. The battlement of this turret are unusual in having arrowloops set beneath them.

K) THE GRANARY TOWER

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In many respects, the Granary Tower is an exact duplicate of the Well Tower. It is octoganal and has four storeys, surmounted by a turret.

Only the top floor is accessible to visitors. From here you can follow a wall-walk along the top of the curtain wall all the way to the King’s Gate, Well Tower and down to the courtyard.

One of the most interesting features in the castle is the multiple grouping of arrowloops at the two levels in the curtain wall on either side of the Granary Tower. The firepower, which these loops enabled to be brought to bear on a limited front must have been devastating.

CAERNARFON AND ITS SURROUNDINGS

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ONe of my favourite aspects about visiting the Caernarfon Castle was all the incredible views and glimpses upon the town of Caernarfon and it’s local surroundings. I am a sucker for panoramic views, and one thing Caernarfon Castle certainly isn’t lacking in is good viewing spots.

If you have time you should definitely head into town and explore the town walls. The circuit of walls and towers enclosing the medieval borough has survived unbroken. It extends from the North-East to near the North-West of the castle, along a distance of about 735m. At an interval of about 64m you will find either one of town walls eight towers or twin-towered gateways.

We were a tiny bit crunched for time. So after a brisk walk around the market, some of the tiny streets of Caernarfon and a beachside stroll we jumped into the car to head to our next destination – a Rib Ride down the Menai Strait.

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HEADING TO NORTH WALES ?

Further reading North Wales

If you are planning a trip to North Wales, you might want to consider buying one of the following guidebooks. All of these books are ones that we used ourselves on our trip and that I highly recommend.

Check out the latest hotel prices for Wales on   Booking | Agoda | Expedia

Read reviews for Hotels, Restaurants and attractions in Wales on TripAdvisor

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10 Comments

  1. April 8, 2016 / 2:05 am

    I’m a sucker for panoramic views too. Even though you were crunched for time, it looks like you saw a good amount. Do you recommend a specific time to get up and hours to spend there?

  2. April 5, 2016 / 4:06 pm

    Simply loved the castle and the place… you got some amazing pictures there!

  3. April 4, 2016 / 5:50 pm

    What an amazing and dramatic place! The map is very helpful in understanding the size and sights of the castle. I pinned this for our grand tour!

  4. April 4, 2016 / 1:24 pm

    Added this to our list. Thanks for sharing such great information regarding this castle.

  5. April 4, 2016 / 10:14 am

    Incredible photos and quite an informative post. I’ll definitely be adding this to my to do list.

  6. April 1, 2016 / 7:48 pm

    Nice photo essay! I’ve never been to Wales, your photos are inspiring me to!

  7. April 1, 2016 / 3:47 pm

    This is immediately going on my list. What a gorgeous castle. I love all your photos with the clouds..so pretty.

  8. March 27, 2016 / 4:24 pm

    Wow it looks like something out of a fairy tale! I’m yet to visit Wales properly, but I’m definitely going to keep this post handy for when I do 🙂

  9. March 24, 2016 / 4:01 pm

    Beautiful! I am a Castle junkie, but have not made it over to this gem, yet. Thanks for the great write-up, tips, and spectacular photos.

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