Wales 2018

First, a link to my Flickr page where I am building an album for this trip...

It was last October that I had taken any decent amount of time off work to unplug and get away from everyday life. Not having any specific locations I was desiring to visit, I asked my travel agent for suggestions. He responded back with Wales, UK as an option after he received some package deals to promote, and also knowing how much we love Ireland. Barely being able to identify where it was geographically located, let alone what draw it had for tourism, I set out investigate it further. I found it had several major points that hot buttons for me in: Castles (and lots of them), stunning Ocean coastline, and beautiful mountains, all in the size of Massachusetts. We crafted an itinerary that had has starting in Cardiff for two nights, driving to St Davids for two nights, then to Aberyswyth for an evening, and lastly to Ruthin for two nights, before leaving the following day out of Manchester.

A word on references: I would strongly recommend the "Rough Guide to Wales". This was my first time using this series of books for travel research, but I like the flow of it. I also picked up the "Lonely Planet: Wales" guide, which I found a bit drier and lacking details. It was a good backup reference, but I eventually left it home, taking the Rough Guide with me when we traveled. If you are planning on Castle Hopping, start with a couple of useful websites:

  • Castles of Wales - a bit dated, but still useful for locating major sites in the areas you might be staying. It's also chock full of pictures and some historic notes.

  • CADW - this is one of the national organizations charged with preserving the castles and other historic sites. Most of the large castles and UNESCO sites are run by this organization. At staffed locations, you will always find gift shops, toilets, refreshments, and a wealth of information about that site. They also have some reciprocal agreements with the other preservation organization, the National Trust.
  • National Trust: Wales - they run a lot of the non-castle historic sites, many of which are worth a visit

I can tell you that if you intend to visit three or more castles, get the CADW Explorer Pass. We got the 7 day explorer pass, which is about $63 USD. That saved us about $181 in entry fees from all of the sites we visited. It is well worth the cost if you are planning on seeing multiple sites that have entrance fees.

Getting There: We usually fly out of Detroit Metro for most destinations, which means about an 8 hour flight time to Cardiff with a connection through Amsterdam. Our original connection was actually supposed to be Detroit -> Boston -> Amsterdam -> Wales, but a mechanical failure in Detroit got us onto a different flight that bypassed Boston, even though we sat apart due to the flight being full (thanks to Delta for figuring out a solution so we arrived in Amsterdam to make our connection to Wales in time). Mental notes for next time though: pack a few Euro. Amsterdam uses Euro for currency while GB is still on Pounds. If you have any kind of layover in Amsterdam, it's nice to have some money for snacks. Most flights coming in from the US seem to arrive in far western Europe in the morning. This means you have some time to kill before you can check into your hotel in most cases. I am not so good at sleeping in flight, so the first full day can be brutal to get through.

Castell Coch
Just north of Cardiff in South Wales is the first castle of our adventure. Originally built by the Normans in 1081, the castle saw several rebuilds over the centuries. It's current incarnation was a major rebuild in the 1800's by a wealthy British man looking for a new summer home. The reconstruction intended to keep with the original design, although the tower roof styles was a design borrowed from European designs. The interior rooms as absolutely stunning. There is an incredible amount of detail in the carvings and paintings in the Drawing Room as well as Lady Bute's bedroom that are worth taking the time to view.

This was our first major of the trip. I wanted to pick up an Explorer Pass since we would be visiting a number of sites on our tour of the country. The Cadw staff were fun to talk with and offered many suggestions while we were in the area. Being pretty well sleep deprived we walked around the castle and climbed the towers, often forgetting to even get out the camera. It's a great first castle to start out in, since it is pretty well intact and offers some amazing furnished rooms, giving you a sense of what it may have felt like in it's original day.
[Cadw Site] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Castles from the Clouds]

Caerphilly Castle
A little further north of Cardiff in South Wales is the second castle of our adventure. After a quick lunch on the town, at a fine restaurant overlooking the castle, we felt a bit refreshed, operating on about 24 hours of no sleep. Caerphilly Castle is massive in scope, it's the larget castle in Wales, and the second largest in Great Britain. Dating back to around 1268, the series of moats surrounding it give the feel of a true fortification.

A mix of ruins and restored sections, as well as well kept grounds make this a great site to explore. Several floors are accessible in the main towers, as well as informative audio visual displays. They have a series of replica siege engines on the grounds also.
[Cadw Site] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Castles from the Clouds]

Chepstow Castle
At the mouth of the Wye River and East of Cardiff in South Wales is the third castle of our journey. Amazing what a difference 12 hours of sleep can do for you. Chepstow Castle is one of the oldest castels in Great Britain, with construction starting in 1067. The oldest surviving wooden castle doors, around 800 years old, are still on display.

The castle has several easy to ascend towers, and a stunning view of the Wye River. The cast
le was adapted over the next few centuries to keep up with the times. As canons and muskets
came into fashion, double walls and gun ports were added in. The great hall is one to take
a close look at, there are still many of the original carvings visible. The chapel also has
some amazing original carved stonework.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Mavic Pro Aerial]

Tintern Abbey
Nested in the Wye River valley are the ruins of an 12th century Cistercian Abbey. Just a short drive north from Chepstow, the abbey was active for 400 years until 1536 when Henry VIII put an end to most of them. Much of the original abbey is just foundations and crumbling walls at this point, the great church was constructed starting in 1269. One can understand how this site was such an inspiration to many writers, poets, and other artists.

No winding staircases to climb here, it's all pretty level, but there is still much to see. Cadw has done a great job at preserving many of the fallen arch stones and decorative caps. The whole feel of the site is something to experience. The splendor of the massive church ruins combined with the "green space" where slate floors used to be, to the open ceilings on a clear blue sky day. We were fortunate enough to see the "Museum of the Moon" art installation on it's last day, which was both beautiful and surreal. Tintern also a few cafes for taking in afternoon tea.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Castles from the Clouds]

Raglan Castle
Just to the northwest of Tintern Abbey, about a 30-40 minute drive, is Raglan Castle. Comparatively newer, being built in the 15th century, it exhibits many newer construction techniques. While it was built mostly for show, it did hold off a 13 week siege during the civil war in the 17th century before finally surrendering.

Even though the great tower was slighted by Cromwell's forces, there is still a spiral staircase to the top, offering incredible views of the surrounding countryside. Unlike many of the other castles built for military purposes, this one was constructed with luxury in mind. To witness it in it's day with it's large library, dining halls, stately apartments and gardens would have been something to behold. The moat around the great tower is still present, and you really get a sense oh how durable this fortification was. At one point Cromwell ordered it destroyed, but it proved too challenging to dismantle. There are still many carved details and sculptures left around, so keep a watchful eye.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Castles from the Clouds]

Coity Castle
On Day 3 we left our temporary base of operations in Cardiff and headed West towards St. Davids. Along the way, and a short jaunt off the M4 just outside of Cardiff, is Coity Castle. Although originally established soon after 1100, much of the castle dates from the fourteenth century and later. Parts were rebuilt following the siege by Owain Glyn D?r in 1404-05.

This was the castle visit that wasn't. We arrived about 30 minutes after opening times to find the gates securely locked, much to our surprise and to the other visitors as well. We strolled around the outside for a bit, but decided against laying seige to the walls for a better view. Most of the upper areas are not accessible for safety reasons. Given the state of ruin, you can experience this location in a short amount of time, although I think it is still worth a stop if you are in the area. Admission is free.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Drone Video]

Carreg Cennen Castle
After a no-show at Coity Castle, we headed Northwest towards Carreg Cennen Castle. Built around the 12th century, the castles defenses exploited the natural environment to great effect, glued to the sheer cliff-face on all sides. The stronghold led a chequered life however, falling into Welsh and English hands during the troubled medieval period. Ultimately it was ordered to be dismantled, but only a portion of the towers could be slighted as the foundation proved too strong.

This castle is often described as the most romantic in all of Wales, and for good reason. The isolation of a cliff top stronghold set in the beauty of the edge of Brecon Beacons National Park makes it a stunning feature on the landscape. The actual castle itself has only a little bit of structure left, although there is a cave to explore beneath the castle used during times of siege. While hiking to the summit, you are often focused on your footing and the occasional sheep dropping, but after you come around the bend and clear the tree line, you will be awe struck by the views around the valley. Castles from the Clouds does not have this one filmed, but I found a 4k drone footage that is every bit as beautiful as I remember it. While maintained by Cadw, it is on private property. The visitor center said our Explorer Pass was good for entry even though Cadw's site said it might not be. They have a great little cafe on site as well.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [4k Drone Video]

Dinefwr Castle
Just to the northwest of Carreg Cennen is the small town of Llandeilo, home to Dinefwr Castle in the National Trust Park. Situated on a hilltop overlooking the Tywi River Valley, this 12th century castle has a commanding view of the surrounding area.

Located in the Dinefwr National Trust Park, along with Newton House, your explorer pass will get you into both sites, so plan on spending a couple of hours at the minimum. As Jen would say, this castle is uphill in both directions. There is a spectacular "enchanted" forest to walk-through on your way up the hill. The remaining towers are all pretty accessible, and the Northern Chamber Block offers incredible views of the surrounding country side and Newton House off in the distance.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Drone Video]

Bishops Palace
We began Day 4 in St Davids, Pembrokshire. A short walk from the massive 12th century Cathedral in St Davids is the ruins of the Bishops Palace. Edward I made a pilgrimage to the cathedral, as many Christians did, and noted the inadequacy of the existing residence, so a new lavish palace was constructed in the late 13th century. By the late 16th century, after Reformation, the palace went into decline.

While not a castle, this is one well fortified residence. The original monastery on the site had been ransacked 10 times by Norse raiders before the arrival of the Normans who fortified it and put up town walls. It is pretty obvious the purpose of the site was to project the power, both spiritual and political, that the sitting Bishop had. There are a few staircases leading to excellent vantage points for viewing the cathedral and town. Many carving still remain even after being exposed to the elements for centuries.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Castles from the Clouds]

Cilgerran Castle
Day 5 had us heading towards Northern Wales with an overnight stop in Aberystwyth. Along the way is the town of Cilgerran with a 12th century castle of the same name. Distinctive for it's two strong towers and numerous defensive features, the castle does not have a documented history of any successful sieges.

We arrived at the castle just a few minutes before an organized tour by a Cadw historian. The tour was incredibly informative and had us looking back at the castles we had already visited and certainly paying closer attention to the castles we would visit. This particular castle was believed to be abondaned by 1400, so it really is an amazing snapshot of another time. The twin towers are both accessible and give you a great view of Teifi River valley.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Video Walkthrough]

Harlech Castle
After a nice evening in Aberystwyth, we headed north towards Snowdonia National Park and the town of Harlech. Built in 12 years by 1000 skilled laborers in 1283, Harlech Castle shows the "walls within walls" design. It withstood a siege of thousands of men with just a handful of men at the defense during the War of the Roses.

One of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Wales, Harlech Castle has a new designed visitors center and amazing access throughout the castle grounds. There is a detailed account of the construction, overseen by James of St. George, Kind Edwards principal Master Mason, who was also rewarded by being appointed constable of Harlech and took residence in the castle. Harlech is one of the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Aerial Footage]

Criccieth Castle
Just to the Northwest of Harlech, across Tremadog Bay, sitting atop a rocky promontory is the ruins of Criccieth Castle. Built around the 13th century, the castle was so sought after by Welsh and English kings, it changed hands a number of times, usually involving long drawn out sieges.

There is not much that remains of this castle. The twin towers are slighted, and most of the walls are in ruin. The view of Tremadog with Snowdonia as the backdrop is will worth the climb to get to the castle. The Cadw visitors center has a wealth of educational information on the history of the area.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Aerial Footage]

Ruthin Castle
We left Criccieth Castle and headed towards our accomodations for next two evenings, Ruthin Castle. This Castle is a medieval castle fortification near the town of Ruthin in the Vale of Clwyd. It was constructed during the late 13th century on a red sandstone ridge overlooking the valley. Part of the ancient walls still remain and now form part of the Ruthin Castle Hotel.

In 1923 the castle became Britain's first private hospital for the investigation and treatment of obscure internal diseases but this was closed in about 1950. Since the 1960s the castle remains have been incorporated into a hotel and may or may not be mildly haunted. There are a few points of interest in the old ruins, along with exceptional gardens and an abundance of wildlife on the property.
[Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Video]

Conwy Castle
Day 7 was the grand finale of our Castle tour of Wales. We awoke at Ruthin Castle and headed north to Conwy Castle. Built for Edward I, by Master James of St George, the castle is amongst the finest surviving medieval fortifications in Britain. In a word, exceptional. You can’t fault it, from the grandeur of its high towers and curtain walls to its excellent state of preservation. Two barbicans (fortified gateways), eight massive towers and a great bow-shaped hall all sit within its distinctive elongated shape, due in part to the narrow rocky outcrop on which the castle stands.

You will definitely want combfortable shoes for this one. Several of the towers are fully accessible to the top, so be ready to climb. Much of the great wall encircling the town is walkable as well. At the mouth Conwy River, there are amazing views of the mountains of Snowdonia and the sea. Conwy is another UNESCO world heritage site.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Castles from the Clouds]

Beaumaris Castle
After leaving the walled town of Conwy, we headed northwest to the Isle of Anglesey toward Beaumaris Castle. The last castle of Edwards massive north wales building project, this symmetric walls-within-walls castle the the most technically perfect in Great Britain. If Edward had not bankrupted England with these building projects, it might have been finished also. Despite not being totally completed to plans, the castle was heavily used and spared after the civil war as an important defensive point against the threat of a royalist invasion from Scotland.

There is much to see and explore in this castle. There is an amazing series of corridors within the inner walls, as well as battlements to walk along for almost the entire circumference of the castle. This is also one of the four UNESCO World Heritage sites for it's technical level of construction.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Castles from the Clouds]

Caernarfon Castle
The last castle on our tour was certainly one of the most intimidating and massive structures in Wales. Caernarforn Castle, just a short drive from Beaumaris, had previously been the location of a Norman motte and bailey castle and before that a Roman fort stood nearby. While lacking some of the defensive features of Harlech and Beaumaris, this castle was designed as a seat of power and it certainly projected the strength of the English.

This is not one to try and take in over several hours, this castle is an all day event. There is so much to explore and see, and so many exhibits, you can easily ge lost in the history. Along with Harlech Castle, Conwy Castle and Beaumaris Castle, this monument has been part of the Castles and Town Walls of Edward 1 World Heritage Site since 1986.
[Cadw] | [Castles of Wales] | [Wikipedia] | [Castles from the Clouds]