Exploring Dolwyddelan Castle: A Sentinel Standing Over Snowdonia
You’ll discover Dolwyddelan Castle standing, like a sentinel, on a rocky hill in Snowdonia National Park (North Wales).
This lonely little fortress is an evocative sight. It’s clearly visible from the A470 main road - travellers often pull in and admire its impressive silhouette.
Dolwyddelan is particularly special because it’s one of the few fortresses in Wales actually built by the Welsh people.
In fact, it’s estimated that only 7% of castles in Wales were actually built by the Welsh. The remainder were built by the conquering English - as a means to control the county.
I visited the castle on a freezing winter’s day in early 2013. It gets pretty blustery up in Snowdonia :)
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Exploring Dolwyddelan Castle: Sights and Sounds
Dolwyddelan is a small, squat fortress, seated on a steep rocky hill inside the spectacular Snowdonia National Park.
At the foot of the hill, you’ll discover the village of the same name.
The castle is a steep climb up the rocky hill. It compromises of a small Keep surrounded by a thick curtain wall. A ruined wall, adjacent to the keep, is all that remains of the West Tower.On the approach to the castle. The ruined West Tower is the lone wall on the right.
Dolwyddelan is fantastic for photos, but there’s not much to see inside. Despite this, the view from the roof, across Snowdonia, is phenomenal.
You only need an hour to see the little fortress, and most visitors drop by whilst driving through the National Park.
A cute fact is that tickets to the castle are sold from the farm at the foot of the hill. (The castle is managed by the Welsh heritage body CADW, but the farm looks after ticketing). The site also has toilets and picnic tables.
In the summer, it is possible to buy drinks and sandwiches in Dolwyddelan village, although there’s a very limited choice.A view of the castle from the bottom of the hill.
Dolwyddelan: One Of The Few Castles Built By The Welsh Princes
Although Wales is nowadays famed for having more than 470 different castles, the vast majority of these were built by the English to maintain control of their conquered lands.
Dolwyddelan is one of a relatively small number of surviving castles which were built by the Welsh Princes.It's a steep pull up to the castle, and when I visited, it was absolutely freezing cold. Be warned!
The two Princes responsible for Dolwyddelan were Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Wales between 1201 and 1240; and his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffud (‘Llywelyn the Last’) who died in 1282.
I’m sure you’ll have heard the phrase that ‘history is written by the winners’, and that’s quite apt when it comes to researching the heritage of these Welsh castles.
Whereas we have good documentary evidence about the vast majority of castles in England, the history of Welsh fortresses is much more hazy.
Welsh folklore says that Dolwyddelan was the birthplace of Llywelyn the Great. This is almost certainly false, as he was born in around 1172 and archeologists date Dolwyddelan to between 1210 and 1230.
However, there was an old castle at the bottom of the valley - Tomen Castell - which Dolwyddelan appears to have been superceded.
The best assumption may be that Llywelyn the Great was born in Tomen Castell which effectively 'morphed' into Dolwyddelan over time. It was certainly used as a base by Llywelyn the Great during his lifetime.The view from the battlements, looking out over Snowdonia, is spectacular.
Interestingly, whereas castles in England were primarily used to stake a claim to surrounding lands, the role of Dolwyddelan seems to have been to protect the adjacent trade route through Snowdonia.
The first floors of the Keep were constructed in the early 1200s, alongside the encircling curtain wall - which, at points, is more than 1.8metres (6ft) thick.A close up of the Keep. Can you see where the brickwork changes, above the doorframe? The stone from here on up is a Victorian addition.
The subsequent court of Llywelyn the Last was itinerant (that is to say, it moved around Wales), and, during the mid 1200s, occasionally operated out of the castle.
During this time, too, Llywelyn the Last appears to have stored some of his treasure here.
The English Conquest of Wales
In the late 1280s, battle-hungry Edward I of England longed to take control of Wales, and, in 1282, he embarked on a conquest of the land.
Edward’s conquest was trigged by Llywelyn’s indecisiveness - and the foolish actions of his brother Daffyd.
In 1283, Dolwyddelan fell to Edward and the English with barely any degree of resistance.
Edward immediately began fortifying the castle to control his newly-captured Welsh lands.
He appears to have heightened the Keep, and added more luxurious living quarters within the West Tower. If you’re wondering, the West Tower no longer survives - just a ruined wall.As you can see, little remains of the West Tower of the castle - little more than this wall.
A new bridge and watermill were also added to the castle in 1283.
Why Dolwyddelan Isn’t a Picture of Medieval Authenticity
The present day remains of the castle don’t really reflect Dolwyddelan’s form, back in Medieval times.
In the 1760s, improved transport was beginning to open Britain up to internal tourism.
Many visitors were drawn to Snowdonia, attracted to its spectacular scenery.
The solitary, man-made shape of little Dolwyddelan contrasted dramatically to the vast, mountainous landscape of Snowdonia.
It was a powerful symbol of developing aesthetic movements - of the Sublime and the Picturesque. The image of ruined Dolwyddelan captured the imagination of thousands of visitors.
As a result of the tourist interest, wealthy Victorian benefactors - entranced by the ruined castle’s Romantic appeal - decided to ‘restore’ the place.This fireplace within the castle was a Medieval feature, but it became exaggerated during the Victorian 'restoration'.
Their ‘restoration’ was really a comprehensive re-building of the castle, re-creating something they thought that a Medieval castle should look like.
As a result, the castle that you’ll visit today doesn’t really represent how Dolwyddelan appeared back in Medieval times.
The Victorians more-or-less doubled the height of the Keep, and added entirely new windows on the upper floors.
Those evocative looking battlements and drainage gutters along the roof are entirely false - the work of Victorian imagination.See the battlements on top of the castle? Unfortunately, they're not an original Medieval feature. They were added (and exaggerated) by the Victorians.
Indeed, if you look closely, you’ll see that the Victorian upper layers of the castle are made of neatly stacked slate, as opposed to the uneven stone of the lower layers.
Of course, none of this makes Dolwyddelan any less impressive. Just bear in mind that its Medieval authenticity has been somewhat compromised!
Continuing Your Exploration of Welsh Castles
The creation of Edward I of England, these spectacular castles are some of the strongest in the world - designed to consolidate England’s capture of Wales.
They are testament to the ambition and ruthlessness of this formidable English king.
Discover more cunning plots, dusty legends, and tales of England's most beautiful castles...
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Where might you find a surviving Round Table, and what happened to 'King Arthur's Corpse' at Tintagel?
What exactly was so terrifying about Medieval machicolations?
And was it a terrible accident, or was Lady Amy Dudley murdered?
If you'd like to delve into these mysteries - and discover many more - you'll love my first print book, Exploring English Castles.
In the words of the American Library Association, it's a 'big, luscious book'.
It's filled with stories, secrets, fables and photos, and runs to 272 pages with more than 200 colour photographs.
It's available from all good bookstores in the US, Europe, Canada and Australia.