So, we left you last hanging on the edges of your seats waiting to hear if we ever got to see our fill of castles…
So, castles. Now these are real proper Castle-type castles. Real, defensive, withstanding-a-7-year-siege kind of castles. Edward 1st really knew how to build ’em, they are considered at the cutting edge of castle technology of the time. And the best thing is that when they were no longer used for defensive purposes they just stopped being used and slowly fell into disrepair, had vines grow over them or had bits of stone pinched for house-building, but essentially remained intact. Not like the English castles which were constantly being upgraded and remodelled according to the fashion of the time, and were used as stately homes etc which shows a progression of use and layering of historical eras which in itself is interesting. But these castles are pretty much how they were in the 1100’s aside from the lack of a bit of white plaster, tapestry wall hangings and less soldiers hanging around; a bit less killing and a few more kids in mittens and bobble hats running around.
Caernarfon was like a rabbit warren of tunnels and passages and murder holes (some of them angled to enable one archer to shoot in three directions or three archers to shoot in one direction – clever), while Conwy was a bit more legible in layout (in my opinion) but both equally fun and interesting. These castles are collectively classed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and are also interesting for their almost completely intact defensive walls around the adjoining town. Each castle was situated at some vantage point on the edge of water and up on raised ground, then the towns were clustered around them with a fortified wall surrounding them and connecting them to the castle. Considering their close relationship and the omnipresent hulking shape of the castles looming over the town, I find it even more strange that these castles could just be ignored and left to gently dilapidate over the centuries. No great uprising, no retaliative symbolic destruction, just peaceful mouldering until the Victorians discovered an appreciation for the ‘historical picturesque’ and uncovered them to be turned into tourist attractions.
After we were shooed out of Conwy castle at closing time we made a dash from the North to the South of Wales – believe it or not the roads are so narrow and winding and hilly within Wales that it would have taken us 6 hours to travel it within the country, but by ducking out back into England and taking the freeway via Chester, Shrewsbury and Gloucester, we made it in about 2.5 hours instead! We stayed the night in Abergavenny, near the Brecon Beacons. The next day we were up bright and early for… yep another castle! This one was Raglan Castle, near the border between Wales and England so a fairly strategic position I suppose, this was a slightly later one a few hundred years after the north’s Iron Ring castles, and I think it was one of the last (if not the last) defensive castles built in Wales although with a bit more lavish and fancy detail than the other ones we’d seen. It was quite interesting as it was on the cusp between crossbow/arrow warfare and the beginnings of gun use, therefore it had innovative and unique windows that were arrow loops up top with bulgy extra holes at the bottom for the gun to poke out of – the archer stood over the gunman who lay on the window sill. Ahh, if only they had put their brains to good instead of evil… We had more castle fun and had yet another frozen moat to throw stones at.
After Raglan we went to Tintern Abbey – my favourite! Very cool and well worth the trip! Essentially it was a major abbey complex and cathedral of an equivalent size and scale to some of the great and famous ones that are still intact, only this one was abandoned, I think after Henry 8th’s dissolution of the monasteries, but never destroyed. So all the major stone walls and amazing towering gothic window mullions remain, but no internal detail, no roof, no floor finish, and no glass in the windows, all capped with a light dusting of frost. It created the most amazing architectural composition of inside/outside, something that is quite rare in this country where in is in and out is out. It felt like a deciduous forest in winter, the stark structural outline remains but stripped of its leafy covering it was exposed and austere, yet beautiful in its honesty and abandonment. One could imagine the ritual existence there of the monks of bygone centuries, the devotion and care once taken of these spaces that are now left to the weather. With no stained glass to focus the attention inwards, the astounding tall windows framed views of silver trees, red and purple hills and crisp pale sky. It was a temple of humanity now left as a temple to nature, and for my part it was absolutely stunning.
After Tintern we headed back to Cardiff for one last night, and a day at Cardiff Bay to see some of the new architecture including the Welsh Assembly building, complete with welsh slate and oak interior finishes – very nice. As it was a blustery day and so soon after christmas we got our own dedicated guided tour on request and got to see through some of the swipe-card access behind the scenes spaces at our leisure. It’s rated BREEAM Excellent I believe, for those interested in green architecture, and the big central funnel helps with natural ventilation, water collection and reuse, and also enables the public to look down on the politicians at work in the room below (I think that concept started with Canberra and has been used in most parliament buildings since).
At that point the miserable rain turned to snow, and we discovered that there were problems with the railway line back to London, so we traipsed to the replacement bus to take us to the alternative trainline via Bristol, leaving Cardiff to succumb to the snow…
After which we endured a week of snow here in London but that was cool fun! No days off work though. We made snowmen (well I made a snowman and Justin made a snowblob) at midnight on a school night which was great fun, we put them on top of bollards for all to enjoy, and they were there the next morning but had been destroyed by some passing Scrooge by the next evening.
Things are pretty much back to normal now. I have however decided to initiate a classics book project for 2010 (1 classic per month) following the great example of Pete and Chris – see my new page to the right for my list and hopefully for regular updates as I get through them. My overall list of 100 books should keep me busy for the next 8 years.