Harlech Castle sits moodily against the beautiful backdrop of Snowdonia, North Wales.
The castle entirely dominates the sleepy town of Harlech – with just 2,000 people and one teeny-high street, this town is no match for one of the greatest castles in Great Britain.
I visited the castle on a blustery day in Winter 2013. Here’re my experiences of this amazing fortress.
A Phenomenally Strong Military Fortress
Harlech is, fundamentally, one of Edward I’s ‘iron ring’ of castles – a formidable construction built to defend the power of one of England’s most vindictive kings. It’s a real strong-hold of power and security.
When you witness Harlech for yourself, you can’t help but be amazed at the sheer height and thickness of the castle walls. Whereas other castles may have been built for looks, there can be no mistaking the fact that Harlech is a strapping, military beast.
That’s not to say that the castle isn’t photogenic, though.
Harlech is blessed with a spectacular setting, and invites photos simply due to the fact that it looks exactly like most people imagine a castle should: four vast grey stone walls with a perfect round tower at each corner, like a child’s drawing.
Edward I and Harlech Castle
As you struggle up the steep incline between the train station and the castle itself, you might begin to think that it would have taken a dedicated individual to build a castle on such a steep and inhospitable spot of ground.
And you’d be exactly right. King Edward I of England was a ruler to be reckoned with.
In the c13th, the formidable Edward I was getting rather tired of Welsh rebellions. His father, Henry III, had been a relatively weak King of England, and had given concessions to the Welsh people, allowing them some degree of control over their own land.
However, Edward I was an aggressive King, eager to stamp his authority across the British Isles.
During the late c13th, the Welsh were trying to reclaim their lands from English rule – and Edward I was not amused. His forces killed the first and last prince of Wales, Llewelyn ap Gruffud, in 1282. And, to secure control over North Wales, Edward I set out on a mission to build and restore a series of mighty castles to assert his authority.
Edward I restored castles in Denbigh, Holt and Ruthin; he overtook the Welsh people’s castles in Criccleth and Dolwyddelan; and he started building magnificent new castles in Conwy, Beaumaris, and his jewel-in-the-crown, Caernarfon.
Work started in 1283 on Harlech castle, and, in the busiest periods, as many as 950 men were building the castle at one time. The castle appears to have been finished in 1289, at a vast expense to the English crown.
Why is Harlech Castle one of Wales’ strongest?
As you finish your climb to the ticket-booths of Harlech, you’ll notice three things: firstly that the castle’s situated on a pretty steep rocky outcrop; secondly; that the posterior part of the castle faces towards the sea; and thirdly, that the gatehouse dominates the front of the castle.
Harlech Castle was built on this site due to its phenomenal defensive potential, and these three factors all contributed to making it a pretty impregnable fortress. I don’t need to explain that the rocky outcrop, and the ditch at the peak, made life difficult for anyone trying to siege the castle.
However, the fact that Harlech backed onto the Irish Sea was a truly ingenious touch.
Edward I’s strength was in seafaring expeditions, and boat and ship-building wasn’t a particular strength of the Welsh people at the time.
Harlech’s connection to the ocean meant that the castle could be restocked with food and provisions from passing ships, should it ever come under siege by land.
A quick but important note – since 1283, the sea level’s gone down.
Back in Edward I’s time, the sea level was significantly higher, and ships would have been comfortably able to load and unload their cargo without such a climb up a pebbly beach and the 108 craggy steps.
The Vast Gatehouse: And Incredible Show of Strength
The gatehouse is definitely the most impressive part of Harlech, and entirely dominates the castle. Indeed, it prevented most marauders from ever entering the fortress.
The gatehouse is perfectly symmetrical, and would have been topped with jagged battlements – although many of these have been eroded away, and are hard to see today.
The wooden steps that nowadays lead you into the castle replace a thin, stone bridge, built in the 14th century to strengthen the defensive capabilities of the entrance. Nowadays, only the stone foundations remain.
If you were trying to pass through the gatehouse back in Medieval times, you’d have been greeted with about three different portcullises, alongside numerous thick, wooden doors. But the purpose of the gatehouse wasn’t just for defence.
The two biggest, outer towers contain bedchambers, flanked by a chapel and vestry in the middle; and the guts of the gatehouse would have contained two vast chambers, used for day-to-day life in a Medieval castle.
Get out on the Battlements!
Undoubtedly the most impressive – and most terrifying! – part of exploring Harlech Castle is walking around the battlements.
The battlements ring three sides of the castle, and the view is phenomenal. Behind you stretch the mountains and crags of Snowdonia – and in front the lashing grey sea that separates Wales from Ireland.
Imagine being an archer stationed on this weather-beaten vantage point. You’d have an incredible perspective of any unfolding battle.
Nowadays, the battlements still offer an amazing perspective over the surrounding area, although you definitely need a head for heights. As the castle is protected by UNESCO, the management can’t install safety barriers.
Some of battlement walls barely come up to shin-height – so tread very carefully!
Planning your own trip to Harlech Castle? My tips and hints. . .
Harlech is a spectacular castle and it’s definitely one of my favourites in Wales.
In fact, it’s so important that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site – very few other castles have such status!
Presently, its cared for by CADW, who are the heritage body of the Welsh Government.
Because of its heritage, CADW can’t add safety-rails or barriers to some parts of the castle. This means that the ramparts, in particular, are quite alarmingly unprotected. I really would advise against allowing children to climb them – and avoid if you’ve got vertigo.
On planning your visit, I took about 1.5 – 2hrs to really appreciate the castle. There’s no museum or cafe (step out into the town), but there are toilets and a gift shop.
There are a few facilities in Harlech town. If you’re looking for somewhere for a snack, there are pleasant tea-rooms in the upper -part of Harlech town, where you can enjoy a cuppa and a Welsh Cake.
There’re also a couple of ‘antique’ (use it loosely!) stores, and some picturesque small streets.
The lower part of the town, around the train station and where the sea used to lie, is pretty depressed.
Resultantly, you probably wouldn’t wish to stay in Harlech if you’re on vacation. My recommendation is the George III Inn in Dolgellau – about a 30min drive, and a gorgeous B&B in an old railway inn. The service isn’t perfect, but the views definitely make up. (Affiliate link via TripAdvisor).
As for reaching the castle – it is possible by public transport (trains run to Harlech), but it’s not easy. Much easier to drive yourself.
If you’ve got a day and your own transport, you could easily tour Harlech, Dolwyddelan, Beaumaris Castle and so forth in one jam-packed day of exploration.
Don’t stop here! Continue exploring Welsh castles
Harlech Castle is best understood if you read about its sister castles, built by Edward I in the same period. So come and discover more about Caernarfon Castle and spectacular, concentric Beaumaris Castle, which are both part of the ‘Iron Ring’ of castles in North Wales.
Alternatively, you could find more about the Great Man himself – Edward I of England.