Our lovely guide at the tour office aboard Marina asked me three times; “How do you pronounce this name, please?” Her Greek voice was simply incapable of forming the word ‘Caernafon’ but then, that’s hardly surprising. Many over the years have formed the opinion that the Welsh language as a whole is simply a subtle plot to subdue the rest of humanity into a stunned silence.
But Caernafon Castle itself is about as unambiguous as they come; a great honey coloured colossus, hewn from local stone, it was begun back in 1298 by King Edward I as one of a series of five ‘ring forts’ that was intended to secure his hegemony over North Wales. With it’s waterfront setting that overlooks a picturesque bay and it’s sublime, near perfect symmetry and stance, Caernafon is one of the greatest, grandest and most completely intact structures of it’s kind anywhere in the world today.
Nowadays, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre that draws thousands of awe struck visitors each year; Caernafon Castle has morphed into a kind of Arthurian theme park that is now a million miles removed from it’s original intent. Squat, hexagonal turrets loom large and gaunt against a backdrop of pale summer sky. The vast, crenellated ramparts range above a harbour where small sailing boats bask on a waterfront, where wheeling seabirds swoop and dive around the crowds seeking shelter in its shade. The whole, swaggering stance of the place is utterly magnificent.
And, like any great medieval bruiser, Caernafon wears the scars of it’s long history like so many tattered battle honours. During the English Civil War, the castle was the last of the Royalist strongholds to surrender to Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces. Later, on July 1st 1969, it was the site for the investiture of Prince Charles in his current title of Prince of Wales, an archaic ritual witnessed worldwide by millions, and carried through just nineteen days before Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the surface of the moon.
We achieved Caernafon after about an hours’ drive from the pier where Marina lay docked. We travelled by coach through the lush, gorgeous hinterland of Snowdonia, regaled en route by a local guide who informed us that sheep in Wales outnumber the civil population by a ratio of four to one. Thus informed, we eventually rocked up at the pretty little market town that sprawls like some supine dog at the feet of the great, grizzled old brute that is Caernafon Castle.
Once inside, the sense of space is quite incredible. Vast amounts of low, rolling greenery are cradled within those ancient walls and, on such a spectacularly sunny day as this, the play of mid morning sunlight across those gnarled, stony old battlements was nothing short of eye popping. Whoever designed this massive, majestic old pile definitely had one eye firmly on his own place in posterity, that’s for sure.
But, up close and personal, perspective fades like winter snow. Small, stony turrets are accessed by tiny, winding staircases that allow only one person at a time to enter. Silent cloisters with flagstone floors echo to the footsteps of long gone inhabitants and retainers. Vast, vaulted wooden doors on huge iron hinges creak open like the very portals to the afterlife itself. Sunlight yields to shadow, and then sudden glimpses of rich, verdant greenery are revealed through a slit in the walls, cut for some ancient archer. The silence, stupendous and majestic, almost screams at you at times. It’s dazzling by day but, my word, there is no way that I would spend the night there alone.
I left Caernafon part exhilarated, partly stunned, and totally awed. Though the castle’s setting actually contributes hugely to it’s enduring lustre, it’s the ageless old brute itself that is actually at front and centre stage. It resembles some giant, sleeping dragon, just waiting for its cue to awaken and protect that ancient, medieval setting from a new generation of invaders once again. Go see it if you can.
It was time to head back, and our coach cantered at a gentle pace through the lush countryside once more. In the distance we glanced the arched, elegant grandeur of the Menai Bridge, towering proudly over the steel grey straits of the same name. Eventually, our own dream castle morphed gradually on the horizon, in the stately, graceful shape of the Marina herself.
Back on board, and a bountiful outdoor buffet lunch came with a side order of sharp Welsh sea breeze. It whispered in low and hard from the sea, causing many people to evacuate the Terrace with indecent haste.
I lingered under the shade, admiring the view and picking at some finely sliced fish. As I did, I mused idly that, while Edward I might well have had the castle of his dreams, I was the one that was actually feasting like a king.
Yes, old is bold, but sometimes there’s quite often a lot to be said for modern comfort and technology, too.