Dungeons and dragons

Inside the walls of classic Welsh castles, Joan Vandewerdt finds more walls ... and a sense of medieval adventure.

A busy day of conquest on the ramparts demands a bountiful breakfast. My travelling partner chooses the "full English": the whole cholesterol catastrophe of sausages, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans plus cold toast. But we are in Wales. Laverbread is on the menu; I've read about it as a Welsh specialty but cannot recall any specifics. In a fit of culinary support, I order it.

The gritty green gunge is inedible. Laverbread is seaweed that looks and tastes as if it has been freshly scraped from the rocks. Anthony Hopkins, the Welsh actor who, as Hannibal Lecter, once had a fondness for fava beans with a nice chianti, has described laverbread as having a fresh, sea flavour. It's obviously the local method of putting a rose on every cheek and a taste acquired at a young age.

Croeso i Cymru. A ydych wedi talu a dodi eich tocyn yn y golwg? - Welcome to Wales. Have you paid and displayed your (parking) ticket?

There seems to be a remarkable shortage of vowels in the Welsh language or rather an excessive fascination with "y". But we are lucky to hear it at all given the sad demise of the Cornish language and the constant hammering that the local folk have endured, from the Romans (respected adversaries) to the English (not so respected) and the Irish and Vikings in between.

It is a fine irony that the legacy of all this constant invasion and domination is that Wales has more castles per square kilometre than any country in Europe. Better still, those built by the English on Welsh soil are acknowledged as the last great military castles in the classic sense. So, with our sense of adventure and some motion remedies packed, we are ready for seemingly endless spiral staircases and turrets atop crenellated towers atop ramparts. All somewhat vertigo inducing. Giggling like children, we charge along narrow stone corridors, deliberately separating when there are choices extending into the gloom. But how to know if it is the corridor less travelled?

These are not Ludwigian fairy-floss castles shimmering in pristine white. Oppressing a pesky populace calls for huge stone castles that dominate the surrounding landscape in foreboding grey. I particularly like the fact that castles come with dragons. Courtesy of the Welsh flag, there is always a fiery dragon fluttering overhead.

In the late 1200s, King Edward I, who enjoyed nationalistic oppression so much he went on to become known as the Hammer of the Scots, started an elaborate and expensive castle-building spree encircling the north of Wales. The Snowdonia Mountains, the highest in Wales, were providing the greatest resistance to English rule. Castles on the chain include Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech, Beaumaris, Rhuddlan and the lisp-inspiring Aberystwyth.

Edward wanted something complex and ingenious (hence so many intersecting corridors), with each castle designed for its location. Their floor plans are based on concentric fortifications: a circle wall within a circle wall and each length of wall separated by rounded towers. You can almost feel the confusion attackers caught between the two walls would have experienced.

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Huge towers could be topped with turrets that increased the overall height and emphasised the castles' air of intimidation.

Perhaps it is the backdrop of the wild Snowdonia crags and the crisp mountain air, but the perceived potential for swashbuckling adventure is certainly enhanced by their original 13th-century condition. These castles cannot be compared to the confusion of the Tower of London (also a concentric castle in its time), subjected to 500 years of additions and renovations from changing needs and newer ideas. Conwy, Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Harlech castles are all World Heritage sites.

Conwy, finished in 1287, is the most impressive. Both castle and walled village at the water's edge, it provides the whole medieval-fortification experience. The castle's towers loom above the sheer stone walls, its blocks cut from the same hard, grey Silurian rock as the rocky outcrop on which it stands, creating a unified stone giant.

The spiral staircases in the towers lead to a confusing choice of corridors on each level. The competing options for exploring include some heart-stopping sharp turns and dead ends and there is the potential thrill of getting lost in the maze.

Edward I also established English enclaves within Wales, so a protective wall - eight metres thick - with defensive towers was built around the town. Impregnable comes to mind, as does living dangerously. At Conwy, you can walk the circuit (more than a kilometre) along the high ramparts with views over the countryside, Snowdonia Mountains, the town of Conwy and the Irish Sea.

The walls extend into the water to provide a defensive harbour and there was also a barbican to protect the people unloading the ships. Originally, the only access to Conwy was by sea and you can easily imagine the feeling of living on an island surrounded by palpable hostility.

Caernarfon castle is known for its role in the investiture of Charles as the Prince of Wales in 1969. It was the birthplace of Edward I's son - the first Prince of Wales. Its walls are now partially demolished for car parks and tacky-looking buildings, a distraction compared to the medieval intimacy of Conwy.

Harlech castle was completed in 1289 and its cliff-top ruins tower over the small town. My companion can whistle without peer and the rest of the day seems to resonate with the stirring strains of Men of Harlech.

The final and largest in the castle- building spree was Beaumaris, also the last of the concentric design. The age of castles becoming palaces or for gentlemanly living was approaching.

A busy day of conquest on the ramparts deserves a huge afternoon tea of Bara Brith. They are on display in the window, so no surprises - old-fashioned delicious fruit loaf made with tea and spices.

Destination

GETTING THERE
From Chester, in north-west England, take the A55 or the A470 to approach Conwy via the valleys of Snowdonia National Park; or the train to nearby Llandudno Junction.

Castles: With the exception of Aberystwyth, which is in ruins, all castles are managed by Cadw (Welsh heritage monuments). The castles are open all year from 9.30am and close between 4pm and 6pm, depending on the season. An Explorer Pass for all Cadw sites is available for three days for £9.50 ($23.50) or seven days (£15.50). Adult admission to Conwy Castle is £4; Caernarfon Castle £4.75.

STAYING THERE
The Castle Hotel on the High Street in the centre of Conwy is an old coaching inn with a large carriage entrance into the car park and ornate stone carvings from the local granite. It was named Wales's hotel of the year for 2005-06. See http://www.castlewales.co.uk.

FURTHER INFORMATION
http://www.visitwales.com, www.cadw.wales.gov.uk

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