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Castle of the Winds
Conwy Castle (Conwy)
Member Name: davidbuttery
Conwy Castle (Conwy)
Advantages: Enormously impressive structure, wonderful views from high up, reasonably priced, quite accessible
Disadvantages: You need a head for heights to see it all
Conwy Castle is a magnificent survivor of darker times. It was constructed on the orders of King Edward I of England in the late 13th century, becoming one of the castles which made up the "ring of iron" with which he intended to put an end to Welsh resistance to English dominion over the principality. Several other castles in the ring survive - along with Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Harlech Castles Conwy is a World Heritage Site - but Conwy is particularly notable both for its massive physical presence and for the way in which it is integrated into the town walls; these have also survived almost intact to the present day, making Conwy a superb example of a medieval walled town.
** The castle itself **
You approach the castle via the inevitable tourist office and gift shop (there are also toilets here) and then climb a long ramp which rises between the town and the castle mound itself. (The ground level of the castle - only - is largely accessible to those on wheels.) Before you even reach the entrance you will be getting good views out across the harbour, although these are as nothing when compared with the glorious vistas of the Conwy on one hand and Snowdonia on the other which are available from higher up. Right up close, the castle's huge curtain walls seem, if anything, even more intimidating than they are from a distance; this is most assuredly not just a fortified manor house in the way of, for example, the roughly contemporary Stokesay Castle across the border in Shropshire.
The ground floor of the castle is, unsurprisingly, dominated by the Great Hall, a full 125 feet in length. This area needs a little more imagination than some to picture as it was, since it is now mostly grassed, with a broad and easy path through the middle and some wooden benches which, I would hazard, were probably not part of Edward's original plans for the place! However, you certainly can get a feel for just how secure a full-on medieval castle was: inside the walls (just one layer: the rock is strong enough that no concentric rings were required) it's easy to forget entirely about the town and countryside beyond and let your horizons shrink so that this really does become your world. For the English defenders in troubled times, it sometimes was.
** Going up... **
The "wall walk", seven or eight metres above the ground, is an absolute must. From here you can look down into the Great Hall, but also get a closer view of the towers and the remains of interior arches; much of this masonry remains quite impressive. The walk is generally not too bad for those of a nervous persuasion (ie me!) although there are one or two places where it becomes quite narrow, and - as is the case in a number of places in the castle, actually - the parapet is not that high. It's not actually unsafe at all, but in slippery conditions you will want to watch your step a little, especially given the number of fearless small children who rush around the place!
The next stage up consists of several large round towers, which are generally essentially complete. These are probably the best option for those without a head for heights, as they don't feel too exposed yet you can get very fine views across country, town and water. One big plus at Conwy Castle is that, although staircases are narrow and winding, with ropes to hold on to as you climb, most of the steps have clearly been restored fairly recently. Some other castles have worryingly worn and uneven stairs, but that's not a problem here. There are usually "passing places" halfway up, too, and sometimes small rooms (ex-privies, quite often!)
Those who want the best views of all should continue up one of the (again, several) high towers. These are quite a bit narrower than the lower level, and the tops really are quite exposed, with the parapet barely up to hip height in some places. The thickness of their walls means that things aren't actually quite as precarious as they look from below, but go up there on a breezy day and you'll certainly know about it! Still, this is the place to go if you want the finest vistas of the lot: from right up here, on a clear day you can see, if not for ever, then certainly for 700 years or so!
** Getting there **
I'd normally put this section nearer the end of a review of this sort, but in the case of Conwy Castle the approach can form part of the attraction. Although there is some parking in Conwy, and a small (request stop) station, the town is very cramped for driving: therefore, in my view the best way to get there is to walk from Llandudno Junction, just the other side of the Conwy estuary. The first few hundred yards are dull and concretey, but once you're up on the (wide, fenced) path by the side of the A55 and over "The Cob" causeway, you get superb views both of the castle itself looming up in front of you and, to your right, the estuary itself and eventually Conwy quayside. There are usually plenty of colourful boats bobbing at anchor here.
You can either come by train, or use the car park at Llandudno Junction station - it costs £3.50 for a day. Ther e is some free parking in the town (of Llandudno Junction) itself, but it's further away, can be rather cramped and doesn't have the level of security that the station car park does: this is a bit of an island of lesser fortune in a generally prosperous region, and while it's not a dangerous place the crime rate is higher than in the likes of Llandudno itself or Colwyn Bay. From the station car park, it's about a mile's walk over The Cob, and unless it's raining (in which case you can get very wet indeed!) I'd always choose this approach myself.
** Practicalities **
Conwy Castle is open all year round, except for the 24th, 25th and 26th of December and New Year's Day. There are several sets of opening hours depending on when you go:
July & August - 9.30 am to 6.00 pm
Apr, May, Jun, Sep & Oct - 9.30 am to 5.00 pm
March - 9.30 am to 5.00 pm
Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb - 10.00 am (11.00 am Sundays) - 4.00 pm
Admission charges are, I think, pretty reasonable considering the size and quality of the attraction. If you are a Cadw member (or an English Heritage member of more than one year's standing) you can get in free, and life members can take a guest in free as well. For those who have to pay, the prices are as follows:
Adult - £4.80
Concessions - £4.30
Family (max 2 adults + 3 children) -- £13.90
** Contact **
Contact is via Cadw:
Post: Cadw, Welsh Assembly Government, Plas Carew, Unit 5/7 Cefn Coed, Pac Nantgarw, Cardiff, CF15 7QQ
Phone: (01443) 336000
Unfortunately the official website (given above) is not very well done and is very short on information. I would recommend also taking a look at www.conwy.com - which is unofficial, but seems to me to be better laid out.
** Verdict **
Conwy Castle is a hugely impressive structure, and anyone with the slightest interest in such things should not rest until they have seen it. The castle's survival in such good condition, together with its dramatic position above the estuary bridges, means that it has retained some of the imposing and - yes - intimidating feel that Edward would have intended. That in turn makes it feel more "real" than those castles which are now nothing more than crumbling ruins. The final irony, of course, is that the castle is now run by the Welsh Government, something that Edward himself was trying to crush the very idea of!
Summary: An absolutely unmissable trip for anyone within reach of north Wales
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