From our vantage point it’s easy to see castles as romantic reminders of knights, damsels and the quest for the Holy Grail — the Renaissance Faire view of the past. The reality is that castles were built to keep enemies out, and they give us a window onto a far more dangerous time than our own. Perhaps there’s a bit of truth in both views — whether the castle provided security or posed a threat depended on which side you were on.
641 castles rest within Welsh borders. Some are merely faux castles, built in the 19th century by industrialists with excess money and a romantic vision of earlier times. Others are authentic medieval fortifications. Four Welsh castles have been collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Three of them, Conwy, Beaumaris and Caernafon, guard the Menai Strait, between the mainland and the Isle of Anglesey. Each was designed by master architect James of St. George, for King Edward I in his bid to bring the Welsh under his domination. A mere eleven miles apart, Conwy and Beaumaris guard either side of Conwy Bay on the north end of the Strait. Here you can steep yourself in ancient history, enjoy quaint shops, and indulge in the best of Welsh produce and cuisine.
Sitting on a rock promontory overlooking the estuary near the mouth of the River Conwy (Conway in English), Conwy Castle was constructed between 1283 and 1289. The castle is not only one of the most impressive medieval fortresses, but one of the last surviving examples of a completely walled garrison town. Incorporating 20 guard towers, the wall extends around the town in a harp shape, from the estuary to the castle, leaving the quay on the estuary open for
commerce and supplies. In its long history, it was twice besieged. Eventually subdued by the Norman/English kings, the Welsh were later betrayed by Henry VIII, a scion of the Welsh house of Tudor, who forbade Welsh speakers from holding public office. A house built during the reign of Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, stands on High Street. Plas Mawr, which has been fully restored and filled with period furnishings, is the finest example of an Elizabethan townhouse anywhere in Britain.
For the Epicurean Traveler, contemporary Conwy is of interest for its fabulous mussels and its food festival. Down on the waterfront, visit Conwy Mussel Company, where 6th generation musselman, Thomas Jones, may show you the cleansing tanks, where millions of mussels rest each year before being shipped to restaurants around the U.K. It takes three to four years for a mussel to grow from seed to harvest. From late September to April, Conwy Mussel Company’s nine employees brave the winds and tremendous tides of Menai Strait to hand harvest 50 to 60 kilos a day using traditional mussel rakes, much the way they have done since before the castle was built.
You can buy mussels directly from the source on the quay, or stroll up High Street to Castle Hotel (across the street from Plas Mawr). The hotel incorporates 15th and 18th century coach houses, and was given a façade of local granite and ornamental brick in the 19th century. Famous guests have included Thomas Telford (who designed the suspension bridge at Conwy), and Wordsworth. Chef/Partner Graham Tinsley M.B.E., Team Manager of the Welsh National
Culinary Team, has presided over the kitchen since 2000. There he treated us to the best mussels I’ve ever experienced (see recipe), as well as examples of his gourmet spin on Welsh Rarebit (see recipe), award winning sausages from Edwards butcher shop (across the street), a fabulous treacle tart (see recipe) with fig ice cream, and Chocolate Tart with Whiskey Cream Liqueur (see recipe), his medal winning entry at the Culinary Olympics. The animation with which he proudly discusses his creations reveals an evident passion for cooking that is apparent in every dish. You can find a new recipe every month on his website.
If you’re planning a trip to Conwy, you might want to schedule it for late October during the annual food festival (www.conwyfeast.co.uk). Conwy Feast draws about 25,000 visitors anxious to try the local food and micro brews of 135 different producers. Admission to the festival also buys you admission to the castle.
Ten miles south of Conwy, you cross Menai Strait to the Isle of Anglesey on Thomas Telford’s suspension bridge, completed in 1826. The tidal flow on this coast is swift and extreme. At low tide, vast mud flats are revealed and locally built sailboats, anchored in the strait off Beaumaris, are built with two splayed keels, so they will settle upright in the mud as the tide recedes.
Beaumaris is notable for its castle and Ye Olde Bulls Head Inn. The Bulls* Head was originally built in 1472 and rebuilt in 1617. It’s a wonderful old building, charmingly creaky, with original exposed timbers and a warren of hallways. The rooms are small but clean and comfortable, each named after a Dickens character, in deference to the author, who commemorated his stay here in a short sketch of “The Uncommercial Traveller,” from his journalAll the Year Round. It’s hilarious that the Bulls Head would bring Dickens to mind, as Dickens maligned the place and its food so unmercifully (click here for the full account). Dr. Samuel Johnson, author of the first English dictionary, also stayed here. If you prefer more contemporary accommodations, The Townhouse next door (opened in 2009) is also owned by the Bulls Head, but I enjoy the ancient atmosphere of the Bulls Head; it’s one of the quietest, most restful inns of my long experience. The quaint pub on the ground floor is also a plus. Notwithstanding Dickens’ criticism, the inn’s other claim to fame these days is the quality of its cuisine. The inn hosts a casual brasserie and The Loft restaurant headed by Chef Keith
Rothwell, both furnished in a modern style, specializing in all local produce. Here you can enjoy salt marsh lamb and Welsh Black beef from the Isle of Anglesey, as well as Anglesey sea salt, and of course the local fish, shellfish, duck, laverbread, apples, ale and cider.
Ye Old Bulls Head is on Castle Street, which is aptly named, for at the end of the street you’ll find Beaumaris castle, Edward I’s last castle, begun in 1295. Work was never completed, due to a lack of funds, as well as the lack of necessity, as the Welsh had largely capitulated by that time, and Edward had already set his sights on Scotland. Yet it remains one of the best preserved examples of a moated, concentric castle.
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*The current owners have dispensed with the possessive case in rendering The Bulls Head name, so we have followed suit throughout the article, except when quoting Dickens.
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