I love castles. Whenever I picture a castle in my head, invariably it will be something akin to what I would have drawn as a child – imposing stone walls standing proud on a hill, turrets and battlements, arrow slits and a huge portcullis. So when we decided to visit Harlech Castle in North Wales, I was very excited.
In preparation for our day out, Rowan made sure he was fully equipped with his wooden sword and a walk through the gift shop finished the look with some chain mail. We also picked up a quiz sheet, and after watching a short film about the history of the castle, we crossed the bridge and made our way towards the foreboding gatehouse. I mean, imagine being an unwanted visitor trying to get through that doorway.
Harlech Castle, built by Edward I over a period of seven years, made up part of the “ring of iron” – a series of castles (including Caernarfon and Conwy) built with the aim of trying to suppress any Welsh rebellions.
With no portcullis, archers, boiling water or falling rocks to stop us, we were through the gatehouse and free to roam the castle. Our Harlech Castle Quest encouraged us to look around, finding clues to discover Edward’s secret weapon. We wandered into the various rooms finding cannon balls from the castle’s past and glimpsing views of the sea through the windows.
We also discovered a model of what Harlech Castle would have looked like all those years ago, with its defensive wall climbing the rocky outcrop to surround the castle itself. It was also amazing to think, especially after noticing the view from the window that the sea reached the foot of cliffs on which the castle stood. It must have been an impressive sight.
Using the map on our quest sheet to look for clues, we discovered lots of facts about the castle and how it was defended. At each point, we also found a letter which would eventually spell out Edward’s secret weapon
Venturing outside the main walls, on the seaward side of the castle, we found steps leading down to (spoiler alert) the water gate. When the castle was under siege, the 108 steps down to the gate and the sea provided a lifeline for the inhabitants of the castle. Food and supplies could be brought by ship whilst the castle was being attacked from the landward side. And the staircase from the water could be easily defended, as ably demonstrated by Rowan.
As we climbed back up the steps, the towers came into view, just asking to be climbed. Surely it’s the rule that if you visit a castle, you have to climb to the top of every available tower? Or maybe that’s just my rule, but I think it’s a good one. I also love finding plants and trees seemingly growing out of the rock. As Dr Malcolm said of Jurassic Park – “life finds a way”.
Once we got to the spiral staircases, I reminded Rowan to stay to the outside where the steps were wider. He enjoyed pretending to be a knight and though some staircases seemed more ominous then others, the views to the castle below were well worth the climb.
I’ve read recently that the spiral staircases in castles were specifically designed to ascend clockwise. This made it easier for a right handed person to defend the castle from above as they would have much more space to swing their sword whilst using the inner wall of the staircase to help shield themselves. A right handed attacker however, would be ascending the stairs with less space to draw or manoeuvre his sword as they would be hindered by the inner wall. This meant they would need to expose more of their body to potential attacks from above in order to use their sword more effectively. How clever is that?
We spent a good while climbing the towers and strolling along the battlements, Rowan being a knight and me feeling like I was at Winterfell – the mountains of Snowdonia in the distance creating a perfect backdrop. I always wonder what stories these magnificent castle walls could tell. And then wonder some more about how they were built and whether the labourers and stone masons thought that someone like me and my boy would be exploring these high, albeit, restored walkways over 700 years later.
But we hadn’t forgotten we had a quest sheet to complete so we finished off finding the clues to reveal King Edward’s secret weapon. All that was left to do was collect our prize from the gift shop then have a slice of cake and a brew whilst admiring the castle some more through the huge glass windows of the coffee shop.
If you like the look of Harlech Castle, you can find some more information here. And if you find yourselves in North Wales, why not have a look at some of the over places we have visited, below:-