Plan a Visit to Harlech Castle

By Ferne Arfin
United Kingdom Travel Expert,

Medieval Harlech Castle in Wales was built as a declaration of power by a powerful king. More than 700 years later, a new visitors center brings it all to life.

In the 13th century, King Edward I was determined to exert his power over the Welsh - that is when this ruthless king wasn't busy subduing the Scots. He created a ring of fortresses that, in their day stood, gleaming white, high above the coasts of Wales and visible for miles.  Their white wash is mostly gone now, but Edward's castles are still fearsome.

[post_ads]His architect, James of St George, a master mason from Savoy, picked a spot on the west coast of Wales to build Harlech. Even before you climb the rickety wooden stairs that reach across its (now dry) moat and enter through its gatehouse, it is easy to see why. The castle faces the Irish Sea from the edge of a rock with a  nearly vertical drop of 200 feet to the beach. From this position, all of North Wales seems to stretch out, visible in all directions.

The mountains of Snowdonia, the Lleyn Peninsula, the settlements that stretch north and south along the coast can all be surveyed from its ramparts.

It took nearly 1,000 men, conscripted from all over Britain, seven and a half years to build it and cost about £9,000 (a fortune in the 13th century). When it was built, a navigible channel to the sea extended right to the bottom of the castle rock. Building materials brought by sea were manhandled up a narrow staircase that you can still climb.

Generations of Conflict[post_ads_2]

Harlech is part of the ring of iron - strategic castles built by Edward I to subdue the north Welsh after Llewellyn, Prince of Wales, refused to swear him homage.

In those days, homage was about a great deal more than bending the knee and tugging the forelock. By swearing homage to Edward, Llewellyn would have agreed to be the king's "man" (homage is related to the French for man - homme), with a duty of military service and, in all likelihood, an annual fee or tax.
When he refused, Edward invaded and, between 1282 and 1293, surrounded the provence of Gwynedd with castles.

Today, Edward's castles in Gwynedd, which also include Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Conwy, are considered the finest examples of 13th century military architecture in Europe and, as a group, are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Harlech never had more than a small garrison of about 30 men. Yet between the 13th and 17th centuries, it was continually in the thick of it when it came to British strife.

  • Between 1294 and 1295 it was beseiged and at one point in serious danger from a Welsh revolt led by Madog ap Llewelyn, who many consider the last Welsh born Prince of Wales.
  • In 1404 it was captured by Owain Glyndwr (portrayed as Owen Glendower in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1), who led a long but ultimately unsuccessful Welsh revolt. He occupied Harlech for about five years.
  • During the Wars of the Roses, it was held by the Lancastrian supporters of Queen Margaret of Anjou between 1461 and 1468 and was the last major Lancastrian stronghold.
  • When the English Civil War broke out in the mid 17th century, Harlech was partially in ruins. Nevertheless, it was repaired enough to take up the Royalist cause and was the last royal castle to fall. Parliament ordered its destruction but seems to have lost interest after tearing up a few staircases.

If You Go[post_ads_2]

  • Be careful: As a UNESCO site, the castle has been left as close to its original state as possible.That means there are often no hand railings or protective barriers. The walls that line the ramparts at the top of the castle are only knee high in places. The wind that whips around the between the inner and outer curtain walls, particularly on the sea side and the corners of the castle can be strong. Children under 16 years old must be accompanied by an  adult and all children should be well supervised.
  • Visit the exhibition and read all the signs: A temporary exhibition inside the gatehouse on the ground level is full of information about the castle's history and how it was built. There aren't many signs around the castle but the ones that do exist are well placed to give you a good idea about how different parts of the building were used. A new visitors center that more fully explains the castle and its almost 800 years of history is expected to be completed by summer 2015.
  • Climb the castle rock: If you arrive by train, you can try the steep footpath that winds up to the castle from the bottom of the hill. This same path was used to bring building materials and supplies up from the sea in the 13th century. Don't worry - walking up along paved streets from the station only takes about 10 minutes, though it is also rather steep.

Harlech Castle Essentials
  • Where: Harlech Castle, Harlech, Wales LL46 2YH
  • When: Open year round from 9:30am. July and August to 6pm, earlier winter and spring closing times.
  • Admission: Adult, child, family and concession prices. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
  • Contact: +44 (0)1766 780552.  See the CADW website for the latest prices and admission times.
  • Facilities: The new visitor center, opened in 2015 has all visitor facilities, plus an impressive presentation. It also includes two self-catering apartments for visitors with views of the castle. Access is by a modern "floating" bridge..
  • How to Get There: By car - Harlech is on the A496 coming up from Barmouth in the south, or the A487/496 from Porthmadog in the northwest. By train Harlech station is only a few hundred yards from the train station, though it is a steep, uphill climb. Choose the Shrewsbury-Machynlleth/Pwllheli service and check National Rail Enquiries for times and prices.
  • Parking: There is a parking area near the castle and  "pay and display" parking lot on the High Street. 


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Travel Magazine: Plan a Visit to Harlech Castle
Plan a Visit to Harlech Castle
Travel Magazine
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