Saturday, February 20, 2010

Caernarvon and Conway

Caernarvon CastleAs the famous strait widens below the bridges the shores are tamer, and we come to the famous Caernarvon Castle, the scene of many stirring military events, as it held the key to the valleys of Snowdon, and behind it towers that famous peak, the highest mountain in Britain, whose summit rises to a height of 3590 feet. This great castle also commanded the south-western entrance to the strait, and near it the rapid little Sciont River flows into the sea. The ancient Britons had a fort here, and afterwards it was a Roman fortified camp, which gradually developed into the city of Segontium. The British name, from which the present one comes, was Caer-yn-Arvon—"the castle opposite to Mona." Segontium had the honor of being the birthplace of the Emperor Constantine, and many Roman remains still exist there. It was in 1284, however, that Edward I. began building the present castle, and it took thirty-nine years to complete. The castle plan is an irregular oval, with one side overlooking the strait. At the end nearest the sea, where the works come to a blunt point, is the famous Eagle Tower, which has eagles sculptured on the battlements. There are twelve towers altogether, and these, with the light-and dark-hued stone in the walls, give the castle a massive yet graceful aspect as it stands on the low ground at the mouth of the Sciont. Externally, the castle is in good preservation, but the inner buildings are partly destroyed, as is also the Queen's Gate, where Queen Eleanor is said to have entered before the first English Prince of Wales was born. A corridor, with loopholes contrived in the thickness of the walls, runs entirely around the castle, and from this archers could fight an approaching enemy. This great fortress has been called the "boast of North Wales" from its size and excellent position. It was last used for defence during the Civil Wars, having been a military stronghold for nearly four centuries. Although Charles II. issued a warrant for its demolition, this was to a great extent disregarded. Prynne, the sturdy Puritan, was confined here in Charles I.'s time, and the first English Prince of Wales, afterwards the unfortunate Edward II., is said to have been born in a little dark room, only twelve by eight feet, in the Eagle Tower: when seventeen years of age the prince received the homage of the Welsh barons at Chester. The town of Caernarvon, notwithstanding its famous history and the possession of the greatest ruin in Wales, now derives its chief satisfaction from the lucrative but prosaic occupation of trading in slates.

At the northern extremity of Caernarvon county, and projecting into the Irish Sea, is the promontory known as Great Orme's Head, and near it is the mouth of the Conway River. The railway to Holyhead crosses this river on a tubular bridge four hundred feet long, and runs almost under the ruins of Conway Castle, another Welsh stronghold erected by Edward I. We are told that this despotic king, when he had completed the conquest of Wales, came to Conway, the shape of the town being something like a Welsh harp, and he ordered all the native bards to be put to death. Gray founded upon this his ode, "The Bard," beginning—

"On a rock whose lofty brow
Frowns o'er old Conway's foaming flood,
Robed in a sable garb of woe.
With haggard eyes the poet stood."

This ode has so impressed the Conway folk that they have been at great pains to discover the exact spot where the despairing bard plunged into the river, and several enthusiastic persons have discovered the actual site. The castle stands upon a high rock, and its builder soon after its completion was besieged there by the Welsh, but before being starved into submission was relieved by the timely arrival of a fleet with provisions. It was in the hall of Conway Castle that Richard II. signed his abdication. The castle was stormed and taken by Cromwell's troops in the Civil Wars, and we are told that all the Irish found in the garrison were tied in couples, back to back, and thrown into the river. The castle was not dismantled, but the townsfolk in their industrious quarrying of slates have undermined one of the towers, which, though kept up by the solidity of the surrounding masonry, is known as the "Broken Tower." There was none of the "bonus building" of modern times attempted in these ponderous Welsh castles of the great King Edward. The ruins are an oblong square, standing on the edge of a steep rock washed on two sides by the river; the embattled walls, partly covered by ivy, are twelve to fifteen feet thick, and are flanked by eight huge circular towers, each forty feet in diameter; the interior is in partial ruin, but shows traces of its former magnificence; the stately hall is one hundred and thirty feet long. The same architect designed both Caernarvon and Conway. A fine suspension-bridge now crosses the river opposite the castle, its towers being built in harmony with the architecture of the place, so that the structure looks much like a drawbridge for the fortress. Although the Conway River was anciently a celebrated pearl-fishery, slate-making, as at Caernarvon, is now the chief industry of the town.

There are many other historic places in Caernarvonshire, and also splendid bits of rural and coast scenery, while the attractions for the angler as well as the artist are almost limitless. One of the prettiest places for sketching, as well as a spot where the fisherman's skill is often rewarded, is Bettws-y-Coed. This pretty village, which derives its name from a religious establishment—"Bede-house in the Wood"—that was formerly there, but long ago disappeared, is a favorite resort for explorations of the ravines leading down from Mount Snowdon, which towers among the clouds to the southward. Not far away are the attractive Falls of the Conway, and from a rock above them is a good view of the wonderful ravine of Fors Noddyn, through which the river flows. Around it there is a noble assemblage of hills and headlands. Here, joining with the Conway, comes through another ravine the pretty Machno in a succession of sparkling cascades and rapids. Not far away is the wild and lovely valley of the Lledr, another tributary of the Conway, which comes tumbling down a romantic fissure cut into the frowning sides of the mountain. At Dolwyddelan a solitary tower is all that remains of the castle, once commanding from its bold perch on the rocks the narrow pass in the valley. It is at present a little village of slate-quarriers. The Llugwy is yet another attractive tributary of the Conway, which boasts in its course the Rhavadr-y-Wenol, or the Swallow Fall. This, after a spell of rainy weather, is considered the finest cataract in Wales for the breadth and volume of the water that descends, though not for its height. This entire region is full of charming scenery, and of possibly what some may love even better, good trout-fishing. Following the Conway Valley still farther up, and crossing over the border into Denbigh, we come to the little market-town of Llanrwst. It contains two attractive churches, the older one containing many curious monuments and some good carvings, the latter having been brought from Maenant Abbey. But the chief curiosity of this little Welsh settlement is the bridge crossing the Conway. It was constructed by Inigo Jones, and is a three-arched stone bridge, which has the strange peculiarity that by pushing a particular portion of the parapet it can be made to vibrate from one end to the other. Gwydyr House, the seat of Lord Willoughby de Eresby, is in the neighborhood, a small part of the original mansion built in 1555 remaining. Near Trefriw lived Taliesin, the father of Welsh poetry, and a monument erected by that nobleman on the river-bank perpetuates his memory.

The recollection among the Welsh of the life and exploits of the great chieftain of former times, Madoc, is held very dear in Caernarvonshire, and is preserved not only in many legends, but also in the thriving and pleasant little seaport known as Port Madoc, which has grown up out of the slate-trade. Its wharf is a wilderness of slates, and much of the land in the neighborhood has been recovered from the sea. The geology as well as the scenery here is an interesting study. In fact, the whole Caernarvon coast, which stretches away to the south-west in the long peninsula that forms Cardigan Bay, is full of pleasant and attractive locations for student and tourist, and entwined around all are weird legends of the heroes and doings of the mystical days of the dim past, when Briton and Roman contended for the mastery of this historic region.

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