Wales – Part Four ~ Caernarfon Castle & the Welsh Highland Railway

IMG_6759I was snuggled up real cozy at the YHA Snowdon Llanberis hostel on the morning of September 6th. The hostel was nestled at the base of Snowdonia Mountain. I opened my eyes, peeked out the window from my warm bed and pinched myself; what an idyllic location! I noticed it was a bit misty outside, but, was glad that at least it wasn’t raining! I was excited about exploring this new territory in oh-so-many-ways. The guidebooks & travel articles I read, as well as some personal experiences that friends have shared, have revealed that there are a lot of things I would like to see and experience here in Northern Wales.

After a satisfying breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, I decided to go for a walk along the edge of the nearby lake, Llyn Pardan, to kick start my morning. Along the way, I thoroughly enjoyed the company of some very friendly local swans who quickly swam over to me greeting me curiously as I strolled.

 

Since it was my first full day in this area and I had so many things I wanted to see and do the next three days, I began prioritizing them. For instance, there is a steam railway in Llanberis which travels up Snowdonia Mountain right to the summit! As you might imagine, it is quite popular, therefore requiring the purchase of tickets at least a couple of days in advance.

Since riding that particular steam train was a top priority I made sure I purchased my ticket straightway. I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the first run in the morning on the very last day I would be staying in town.  That was lucky! In the future, I will definitely go online and purchase them a lot sooner instead of waiting until I got there as I almost didn’t get one at all during my stay! That could have proved to be quite disappointing!

Another attraction I wanted to see was Caernarfon Castle. Luckily it was only about 7 miles away along a beautiful country road from where I was staying in Llanberis so after saying farewell to the swans, I jumped in the car and began the beautiful drive west in the sunshine that had broken through. In no time at all, I was standing right in front of that mighty impressive castle right at the water’s edge!

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It appeared in person just as the castle’s website had described it:

“A brute of a fortress. Caernarfon Castle’s pumped-up appearance is unashamedly muscle-bound and intimidating. Picking a fight with this massive structure would have been a daunting prospect. By throwing his weight around in stone, King Edward I created what is surely one of the most impressive of Wales’s castles. Worthy of World Heritage status no less.”IMG_6761

Like so many, it also had previously been the location of a Norman motte and bailey castle and before that, a Roman fort. The river and easy access to the sea made the banks of the River Seiont an ideal spot for King Edward’s monster of a castle with its polygonal towers; the Eagle Tower being the most impressive!

 

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The castle and its walled city were built in 1283 and it amazes me that they are still standing despite having been ruinous for a large number of those years!IMG_6911

It’s a fun little town to walk around both inside and out. I am so grateful that people had the foresight to preserve these beautiful architectural treasures for future generations.

The parking area on the right in the photo below is where all the ships and shipping activities flourished in the past. Rather quiet now with just parked cars! It used to bustle!IMG_6775

 

IMG_6880Like so many castles I have had the pleasure to visit on this trip, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Caernarfon Castle also holds ancestral connections for me. Edward I, King of England (1239 – 1307) built and lived in this castle and he is my 20th great-grandfather  Geez, it just gives me goosebumps when I make these discoveries!!!! 

I didn’t realize this fact until just now, as I write this blog and therefore didn’t know it while I was visiting the castle. Usually, before I visit a castle I check my family tree in Ancestry to discover whether or not the person who built the castle was an ancestor of mine. I didn’t check ahead of time because I didn’t realize I had any family connections in Wales. However, when the thought occurred to me to at least check now, although after the fact – lo and behold! – I did have a connection! Amazing!

I suppose I should be getting quite used to this by now, but it never ceases to impress upon me how complex my ancestry is; how many golden ancestral threads crisscross the countryside of this island. It’s like my ancestry DNA is weaving its own beautiful tapestry with a thread from each place containing all the individual pieces of splendour and history from each location and each person in my family tree.

I cannot recommend highly enough nor encourage you more to trace your roots. Tracing your family history and visiting the actual locations they come from is such a unique and wonderfully fulfilling experience. Sure, it takes a little work to figure out who your ancestors are (and that can be quite fun in itself) and it also takes some more time to map out where they came from, but it’s oh-so-worth-it!  Doing so has really helped me to learn a lot more about history, my ancestors and most importantly, myself, who I am and where I come from.

So….anyway, back to this castle – one that one of my great grandpas from way-back-when built in 1283…   It’s pretty amazing both inside and out. Let’s take a detailed look.

I walked around the outside perimeter and also walked around and through the small quaint city inside the walls while I waited for the castle doors to open for the day. The city had all kinds of interesting buildings and shops, a town square called the Maes, churches and many busy little side streets that were fun to explore.

 

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No matter what angle I took a picture from, the castle constantly appears formidable and takes centre stage. The view above is taken from the town square, ‘the Maes,’ and the big archway opening on the left side of the castle is called Queen’s Gate. There used to be a stone ramp that led up to it from the quay, but it’s long gone.

Below are pictures which were taken from the Queen’s Gate arch looking both into the interior of the castle, and looking back down to the Maes.

 

King’s Gate, the main entrance, is about halfway down the right side of the castle walls. After getting all of these great pictures of the outside, I ended up at the castle doors just at the right time to be greeted by a friendly face who was opening the doors and welcoming his guests to the castle.

 

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Off I went exploring further inside after purchasing my concessionaires discount ticket! (I love being a senior citizen!)

 

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I climbed to the top of the towers… and there were a lot of them!  I think I counted about 9 and some of them were about ten stories high at their rooftop levels! I got my exercise that day… The views from atop were outstanding and magnificent.  My favourites!

 

 

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All throughout the interior of the towers and rooms throughout the castle were numerous displays and exhibits, such as The Royal Welsh Fusiliers Regimental Museum,

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where you will find a wealth of original exhibits with film, sound and models, telling the story of over 300 years of service by Wales’ oldest infantry regiment.

 

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IMG_6856There was also this display of all of the main characters throughout the course of the castle’s history set on a chess board. The white pieces represent the English; the red represents the Welsh. It was a very interesting way of presenting a very dry subject and it was fun to walk around and intermingle amongst them.

 

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Then there was the King’s bedroom in another tower….IMG_6905

 

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IMG_6909It was a wonderful castle to tour; one of the best I’ve been to, actually. They had really good audiovisual equipment, professional and updated contemporary signage. Their displays were extensive and quite informative.

After visiting such a massive structure, however, I was ready for something a little bit smaller, kind of cozy, and gentile.  So, I got back in the car and headed inland this time and down the road to another wonderful spot, the quaint village of Beddgelert. Straightway I found a handy parking place right next to a perfect outdoor cafe with riverside seating where I enjoyed a delicious lunch while listening to the flowing and rippling water nearby.

 

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After a very satisfying meal, I took off on foot exploring across the bridges, down the streets and on the pathway to an unusual grave.

 

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IMG_7002Next, I walked to the top of the town where the train station is, IMG_7001bought a roundtrip ticket and boarded a steam train bound for Porthmadog.

 

 

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It was a really cool old train which meandered through the glen following the river most of the way, going through tunnels and blowing its whistle. I felt like a little kid and enjoyed it tremendously.IMG_7066

 

 

 

 

As we approached Porthmadog, the ground levelled out and we were travelling through farmland looking at the mountain ranges on either side of the lush valley.

 

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Entering Porthmadog was an event in itself. The train tracks go right down the main street to the station and vehicular traffic as well as foot traffic is barricaded so the train can drive down Main street and over to the station.

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Once we arrived at the station, all passengers disembarked and stretched their legs while the Engine went down to the turntable to reposition itself.  It also gave us a chance to have a good look at the engine that had been pulling us.

 

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I mosied around the train station for a little while I waited, grabbed a fresh coffee and a lovely little welsh pastry to go with it, and discovered quite a few things of interest close at hand. That station was right at the harbour’s edge, in the centre of this bustling little seaside town.

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There were several very interesting and beautiful steam trains to marvel at.

 

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IMG_7068Soon it was time to board the train again to head back to Beddgelert. The First Class cabin had pretty lush and comfortable looking seating, but you couldn’t open the window and let the wind blow in your hair! I’ll take the latter, thank you!

We began the ascent up into the mountains and enjoyed the beautiful scenery once again in reverse order.

When I arrived in Beddgelert again, I still had just the right amount of sunlight left in the day to take the same road through Pen-y-Pass as I had the day before, retracing the way I had come. There was some absolutely gorgeous scenery through there and I wanted to take my time, stop at every turnout and take a picture or two this time through. The day before I had been driving all day long and was looking for my next hostel so I hadn’t had time to stop but once or twice.  Now I had plenty of time to stop, much more sunlight for my photos, and much more time to spend enjoying and capturing nature’s grandeur and beauty.

 

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It was a delightful day, full of fun train rides, beautiful scenery and an outstanding historic castle. Who could ask for more? Not I! My day had been chock full of wonderful surprises and discoveries and I was grateful for them all.

I returned to my hostel nestled up on the side of the hill at the base of Snowdonia. I treated myself to a serving of Bangers and Mash supper that the hostel offered for dinner that night, chased it with a nice dram of Scottish whisky and then my day was complete.  I tucked away for the evening in my cozy bed back in my “room with a view” in anticipation of the next day – yet another castle to explore, wonderful waterfalls and an ancient archaeological site to visit!

 

 

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Author: Claudia Frew

Adventuresome, independent, and fun-loving American 65-year young great-grandmother who loves to travel; often going solo!

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