Saturday, August 11, 2007

Castles and Walled Towns

After the Eisteddfod, we headed north again, grateful to see the weather clearing; our first stop was another Bronze Age ruin, a spot called Capel Garmon, with a handsome chambered tomb. This site actually was marked off with a fence, and a sign; but then, it was in the middle of someone's farm. In fact, it was in the middle of a pasture full of sheep; the fence was undoubtedly to keep the sheep from falling into the tomb, which was 3-4 feet deep. I felt a little odd driving down what was evidently someone's driveway (complete with sign reminding us to close the gate); but that's where it was. It was a lovely, peaceful spot. If you want more information on Capel Garmon and feel like exercising your Welsh, there is a Wicipedia [sic!] site on it, entirely in that language.

Having taken the requisite number of photographs (I'm working on the photo gallery, there are 16 rolls of film!), we moved on to Bodnant Garden, where we spent several hours in our usual fashion, Jim cruising the garden, looking for interesting combinations of plants, while I simply wandered around. My initial wandering was driven by the fact that I needed a loo, and had failed to use the one in the parking lot; the only other one was at the extreme bottom of the garden, down by the Old Mill. Having found the facility, I had a lovely wander back along the stream (massed blue hydrangeas) and up to The Poem (the local name for a mausoleum perched on a rocky hill; don't ask me why they called it that). The Poem, unfortunately, is under renovation until (as I recall) 2009 or so, and was entirely wrapped in what looked like tarpaper; but I still had a nice walk. Bodnant also had several gorgeous reflecting pools with the usual water lilies.

After Bodnant we moved on to our next B&B, in Conwy, at the mouth of the Conwy River, on the Welsh coast facing the Irish Sea. Conwy, like much of northern Wales, is quite hilly; and I assumed when I saw the medieval stonework (with round towers) climbing a hill some distance from the inn, that I was looking at Conwy Castle. I was wrong: it was Conwy's town wall, which is still intact; you can walk around the town on it, at least from one side of the Castle to the other. As a standard medieval defensive tactic, one can't get into the Castle from the
town wall. One can't get into the town without going through the wall, even in a car; and the arch that allows car traffic is one car wide, and one way. Watching buses negotiate the arch is amusing; I'm sure there's a limit on the size of bus they can use. Since our B&B was within walking distance of a gate in the wall, we left the car there when we went into town.

Conwy Castle is very well preserved, with a number of interior walls intact and even some of the decorations; it's possible to climb to the top of all 4 corner towers. In its day, it was a spectacular fortification, beautifully (and strategically) located at the river mouth overlooking the estuary.
Edward I built it at the end of the 13th century, as part of his campaign to control the Welsh, and the town, of course, grew up around the castle.

Conwy is a town, by the way, and not a city; we made a remark about the "city wall" to a local person and were sternly corrected. One must have a cathedral in order to be called a city; Conwy only has parish churches. I don't think there was much there before the castle, despite the location on a river, because of the Church of St. Mary's and All Saints, in Conwy. The nice parish lady explained to me that the church was founded in 1172 as the Cistercian Abbey of Aberconwy. When Edward I built his castle, a hundred years or so later, he negotiated with the Cistercians (read: bribed with more land) to move the abbey to another site, and the abbey church became a parish church - much larger than the population then probably warranted, since the Cistercians were notorious for putting their abbeys as far away from other settlements as possible. St. Mary's and All Saints, and its graveyard are in the "back yard" between two city blocks; all the neighboring houses back onto it. There's one actual road going to it, but I found it by looking down an alley.

Aberconwy House, now run by the National Trust, is a 14th century merchant's house which survived into the 20th century as an occupied dwelling (occupied during the late Victorian period by a Temperance Hotel). It's been restored, so that one room looks as it would have in the 15th century, and one as it would have in the 18th or 19th, and a couple as they were in the Temperance Hotel. It's very rare for a merchant's house to survive this long with the structure essentially intact. Conwy also has an Elizabethan house, but it wasn't open for touring. At the other end of the scale of importance and interest, Conwy contains the Smallest House in Great Britain, which I toured out of sheer curiosity - the whole house (2 stories) is less than 6 feet wide and just under 10 feet high.

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