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Conwy, Northern Wales
Dublin impressed us all as a city we could come back to, but we were happy to move on, back across the Irish Sea to Holyhead and North Wales. Almost until we left Dublin, we weren't sure where we wanted to stop on the other side, and the guide books didn't help much. Fortunately, we finally settled on the little town of Conwy.

Stena Explorer's powerful jets
photo credit: Chad Abramson
I've read so many times about the trip between Holyhead and Ireland, so the actual trip on a giant Stena Line ferry was a bit anticlimactic. As expected, the train connection was easy, and before we knew it we were speeding across the granary island of Angelsey toward the mountains of Northern Wales.
Wales landscape near Conwy

Few trains stop in Conway, so we rode just over the river to Llandudno Junction and taxied back. Our driver dropped us at Y Pont (The Bridge) pub with rooms above, and they took us in. From Dublin by bus-train-ferry-train-taxi and settled in with time for a visit to Conwy Castle, one of King Edward II's defensive line of castles to quell Wales in the early 14th Century.
Conwy Castle from within the town walls

The castle and town wall
photo credit: Rochelle Elkan
Wasn't King Ed clever to provide his castle with such a nice car park?

Fortunately carless, we got to the castle by strolling along the top of the impressive town wall -- Conwy being one of the most neatly and completely walled towns we've visited. The sun was shining brightly, and the sky was kodachrome blue, a great rarity on this part of the planet, so we enjoyed ourselves in the clement air.
After paying an entry fee to the Wales branch of the National Trust we found the official guide, a little round man with a stick, just inside the inner ward holding forth on the castle to a small group of mostly folks from the U.S., and so we joined them and followed him around.

Our guide emphasized, as had those at Edinburgh and Cawdor, that a castle is a defensive structure -- a little more on this below -- meant mainly to shelter a group of fighting men. Therefore, niceties aren't really required ...except when the king visits, and apparently kings love to visit. Conwy, being smaller than Edinburgh, didn't contain a palace, but did contain an inner ward and suite of rooms for the king.
As someone who built forts back in simpler days before Viet Nam, I immediately recognized the self-indulgent "defensive strategies" -- castles are overgrown boys playing a real game of war.
The town through the original entry arch
The defended entry to the outer ward culminates between these towers
Conwy Castle was built on a rock outcrop (like Edinburgh), and entry was through a walled town (except for the king's watergate.) To enter the castle, you climbed a steep earthen ramp, crossed a drawbridge, passed through a defended outer gate and below a portcullis, along a narrow passage ending in a bend before the next set of gates and portcullises under the battlements from which defenders could shoot arrows, drop rocks, and otherwise extended a hearty welcome to unwanted visitors. Murder holes above the second gate were for the pouring of molten lead and flaming hot oil on attackers.
And that only got you into the outer ward through the archway above the green in the photo at right. This you would find filled with soldiers who lived in the towers and ate in the great hall to the left of the green. Since the green was used by the soldiery in practice, they knew the territory intimately and thus held home-court advantage.
To get to the king, there was another set of equally elaborate defenses to get through the next wall through the little archway at the bottom of the picture. Our guide pointed out that all but one of the towers had clockwise stairs, good for right-handed swordsmen. Apparently, lefties occurred in roughly a one-to-seven proportion in the England of this time.
The outer ward (sunny) and third defensive wall
Three northern (seaside) towers

Was the castle a grim place to live? Not if you were the king or one of his suite. Architectural touches of grace and care survive five centuries later -- the tracery limestone work around chapel windows (there were two chapels here) and in the king's audience chamber.
If this seemed a hard way to go, the walls, defended by eight towers, were even more impregnable.

Four of Conwy castle's eight towers

"Was the Castle attacked? Yes. Did it fall? No," according to our guide.

One arch (of eight) survives above the king's audience chamber

a fireplace built into an inner wall
Originally, even the soldiers had a good life (compared to the Welchmen the castle was meant to control.) As long as they weren't beseiged, fireplaces built into the walls kept the chill off. There was a chapel for the men as well as one for the lords.

the King's chapel
one tower from another
a basement window in the granary

looking across Conwy from the top of the town wall
To our delight, we found a home-style vegetarian restaurant hard by the town wall, and had dinner there twice. Getting there along the wall as the rosy light of sunset suffused the town, we could feel that this was a very memorable moment.

Michael Potts, webster
updated 8 August 2001 : 12:56 Caspar (Pacific) time
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