[quote]The official number seems lost in the mists of time. 400? 600? Whatever it is, Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country.[/quote]
And we're not talking scattered ruins on a windswept hillside. There are heaps of well-preserved regal fortresses. Places to get lost in, with spiral staircases, spooky corridors and craggy battlements. Places where you can imagine yourself swept back in time to an age of valiant knights, murderous tyrants and maidens in distress.
Particularly if you're aged four and a half.
Our recent family break to North Wales featured three of the big hitters – Conwy, Caernarvon and Beaumaris. Joe our son had seen a few castles, but nothing like these massive monuments to the power and ambition of English King Edward I. The trip left him utterly obsessed with knights and castles, prompting many a Lego building session afterwards.
We started at Conwy, where the castle's location couldn't be more splendid. A spiky bunch of towers thrust upwards from the banks of the river Conwy. Huge walls surround the town completely in a protective fist.
[quote]I'm scared of the dark," said Joe.[/quote]
Drawing his plastic sword, he stepped back... and gave it to me. Feeling like a proper dad, I led the way up the first spiral staircase. School teacher mum was quick to point out that spiral staircases always favoured right-handed defenders. "There's more space to draw your sword hand coming down than going up," she explained. Thankfully we encountered no ogres or soldiers. Reaching the top we could see what a great vantage point the castle occupies. The views across the town and the estuary are vast and you can walk at high level around the top of the ramparts too.
Keep an eye out for the modern stained glass windows in the chapel. Hiding among the more typical medieval scenes we spotted the mobile phone and a bicycle. We wandered around the town after our visit. You can see those huge high walls from almost anywhere. There's a real sense of the place sitting protected in their midst. Big chunks of them are freely open for you to walk along too.
Edward built many castles in his campaign to conquer the unruly Welsh populus. We hopped across the Menai Bridge next - to Anglesey and to Beaumaris. The vast castle here feels totally out of proportion to with the attractive little town which is concentrated along a main road with a few side streets and a harbour.
[quote]Chaarrrrrrrgeee!" shouted Joe as we crossed the drawbridge over the moat, swords at the ready.[/quote]
A moody drizzle had started to patter upon the ancient stones so we retreated inside, tiptoeing down dark corridors deep within the castle walls. Once more I had to go first. We stumbled in the gloom upon unexpected side rooms and ancient privys with drops into the moat below. Suddenly there was a huge commotion. Losing all my points for bravery, I let out a shout of surprise. We'd disturbed a roosting pigeon. It fluttered around making us all jump. Joe took a lot of persuading to keep going after that, the sense of something spooky waiting round every corner was all the more intense after our surprise encounter. Maybe there are ghosts of ancient warriors hanging around these dark, gloomy corridors?
Conwy castle was built at incredible speed – it took just four years to complete. The vast castle here at Beaumaris was never finished. Edward's campaign against the Scots meant funds to complete it weren’t forthcoming. After 35 years of stop-start construction it was abandoned. What you see today is not that different from how it looked during Edward's reign.
The final and most impressive of the three castles was Caernarfon. It's the seat of the current Prince of Wales who was invested here in 1969. Joseph lost no time in asking Mum to officially knight him too and knelt on one knee close to the spot where Prince Charles became Prince of Wales. "Arise Sir Joseph," she said. And then off we went to explore some more.
The towers here are particularly imposing – they're polygonal, not round and the walls are built with different coloured stones creating a series of stripes that run right around the outside of the building. It's a fantastically complete structure, very photogenic.
We climbed all the way to the top of Eagle tower. Maybe Joe's new knighthood had done the trick, as he was happy to lead the way now, a brave explorer. The views from the top back across the town with the foothills of Snowdonia in the background and in front, out across the Menai Straits were just fantastic, if a little vertiginous. In the grounds there were canons to climb on and the high level walkways around the walls offered all sorts of views of the intimidating towers and walls. The angular nature of the building really adds to its impact – it's almost a figure of eight shape, oddly exotic.
I found the descriptions of the investiture of the Prince of Wales particularly interesting. How did the local people feel about it? In many ways it was a huge political statement. There's often a sense of detachment visiting ancient monuments from ages past. This made it feel different – the placing of a more recent great event here made the castle feel more alive.
[quote]I hope Joseph remembers the fun we had dashing around the ramparts and clambering on the cannons.[/quote]
Maybe he'll bring his kids here for adventures. It's the kind of experience that gets handed down the generations – an integral part of growing up in the UK. So, if you've got kids make sure they've had a few castle adventures – they make brilliant memories.
Fancy a Family Adventure in Wales?
If you're travelling from outside the UK, the closest airport is Manchester.
You can catch the train to Conwy, but a car is recommended.
Conwy: The Quay Hotel and Spa offers comfy 4-star rooms some with great views across the Conwy estuary to the castle. Food and service in the restaurant a bit hit-and-miss.
Beaumaris: Ye Olde Bull's Head Inn and The TownHouse offer funky contemporary and atmospheric traditional rooms which are nice but a little pricey. Good food in the restaurant.
Check out the CADW website for heaps of information about Castles in Wales.
There are lots more ideas in the family holidays in Wales guide I wrote for Horizon Guides.
See the Visit Wales website for lots more info about visiting North Wales.