Historic Harlech

April 16th, 2019

Why not make the most of the beautiful Spring sunshine and head out to explore one of North Wales’ gems – just a short drive from us here at the Oakeley Arms. A little bit of history followed by a beautiful walk and maybe a well-deserved drink back here in the Oakeley beer garden afterwards. What’s not to love?

The mighty Harlech castle has stood defiantly watching over the town and coast for over 700 years, and its walls are packed with history and intrigue. Our Walk with History delves deeper into the legend of one of Wales’ finest medieval castles.

The year is 1272. After decades of civil war and unrest, England is in turmoil. The aristocracy are battling over land rights and the working classes are sensing unrest. A new king, Edward I, has just come to the throne and he is determined to restore peace; he plans to begin by dealing with England’s most troublesome neighbour, Wales.

Tensions between the king of England and Welsh rebels had been brewing for years, and by 1277 Edward could stand it no longer.         Goaded by the Welsh Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, who was slowly claiming more and more land towards the English border, Edward not only invaded Llywelyn’s territory but came up with a grand and costly plan in a bid to control the unruly Welsh army.

He would build great fortresses, designed to subdue rebels and remind them of the power of their new English rulers. The plan worked; by 1284 Wales was officially incorporated into England and Llywelyn was killed in battle.

Known as Edward’s “Iron Ring”, the most prominent castles were built at key positions along the Welsh coast. They are over 700 years old and have survived countless battles and brutal attacks but most have aged extraordinarily well. They are fine examples of groundbreaking medieval castle architecture and of Edward I’s determination to assert his authority over the Welsh.

Historic Harlech

And one of the finest of Edward’s castles is in the pretty coastal town of Harlech, along the northern edge of Cardigan Bay. It took seven years and 1,000 men to finish the build; it was completed in 1290 at a staggering cost of £8,000 (a figure of over £6 million in today’s money), and it is recognised as one of the designing architect’s, James of Saint George, finest creations.

But, it wasn’t long before the castle came under attack and its defences were put to the test in 1294, when Welsh rebels attempted an assault. The castle military soon saw off the attackers, but it was a different story a hundred years later when it was captured by Owain Glyndŵr, the Welsh freedom fighter.

Owain Glyndŵr is one of the best known Welsh princes, and indeed, was the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales. He instigated a Welsh revolt against the rule of King Henry IV in 1400, and at first, the uprising was hugely successful – Glyndŵr’s army made huge progress in gaining control of much of Northern and Mid Wales. By 1403, news of Glyndŵr’s battle had spread and native Welshmen returned from across Britain to join his army. By 1404, and after a bloody battle, Glyndŵr had captured Harlech castle from the English King and it became his home and headquarters for four years, before being reclaimed when Glyndŵr’s campaign fell apart.

In the years that followed, Harlech castle was involved in the English Civil Wars of the 15th and 17th centuries. In 1647 it was the last royal fortress to surrender and the battle marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War. Soon afterwards parliament ordered the castle’s destruction so that it could not be used by the Royalists and by the turn of the 18th century Harlech’s mighty castle was more of a crumbling wreck.

As peace spread across Britain, the castle was neglected and left to ruin until it was taken under the wing of Cadw, the historic and preservation department of the Welsh Government. The castle (along with Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Conwy) was designated a World Heritage Site in 1986 as UNESCO labelled the sites as some of the most important examples of 13th and 14th century military architecture in Europe.

Today, Harlech Castle stands fiercely proud on its high, rocky look-out, having gallantly survived the merciless coastal winds, as well as fending off assaults by angry Welsh rebels. It is a great testament to Edward’s determination, but also an ever present reminder of Wales’ long standing struggle against English domination.

The Walk

Distance/Time:                          7km / 4.5 miles. Allow 2 – 2½ hours

Start:                                        Bron-y-Graig Uchaf Long Stay Car Park (from Harlech High Street, follow road past shops and then church on left. Turn left for car park – short stay is closest to main road, long stay is around corner)

Grid Ref:                                   SH 582 309

Ordnance Survey Map:              OS Explorer OL 18 Harlech, Porthmadog & Y Bala

After the walk:                           Cafes, restaurants and pubs in Harlech

1: Leave the car park, turn right along the road and then left at the T-junction uphill. At the end of the road by metal posts go straight up and then very soon bear left for a signed grassy path. At the top of the path reach a rough track: turn right as way-marked (on the wall ahead) and then very soon turn left at a ‘Public Footpath’ sign along the road. Soon, bear left again alongside the wall of a house to find a narrow footpath rising up ahead.

2: Follow this grassy track to some gates. Go through the first wooden gate and stay ahead for about five steps then turn left to go through a large metal gate by the way-marker on the post that points right up the grassy field. Follow the way-markers through the field, passing through gaps in two very low stone walls. Continue ahead and you’ll find a stile in a stone wall. Cross that and follow the obvious path through the field to a gap in a stone wall. Walk through this and continue with the wall to your right. At the top of that field, bear right through another gap and then left to join a green lane between two walls. At the end of this green lane you’ll reach an open field. Turn right to follow the stone wall and under power lines. As the wall veers right, ignore a gap but stay ahead to aim for some houses and eventually reach a stile over the wall. Don’t cross this stile, but turn left and walk alongside the wall to reach a gate onto a lane.

3: Turn right but very soon bear left at a ‘Public Footpath’ sign by a cattle grid. Cross it, then bear immediately right for a grassy path to a small gate into a field. Bear right to cross the field diagonally, passing some stone piles and an electricity pole on the left, heading towards the field corner then look right for a stone stile over the wall. Cross it and head straight down this field through a gateway and onto a grassy track. Continue ahead again down the field, staying quite close to the wall on the right and you’ll soon see a wall beginning on the left. There’s a path (sometimes overgrown and muddy) between these two walls so follow this straight down to a gate onto a lane.

4: At the lane turn right, then at the crossroads go straight over, passing a bus stop. At the next junction, turn right along the pavement for a short distance until you see a coast path way-marker and ‘National Trust’ sign on the opposite side.

5: Cross the road and go through the gate then follow the path downhill as it zig-zags to some steps to the railway line. Cross it carefully then down to the beach and turn right.

6: Walk along the beach for at least a mile to reach a red and white pole with life-ring attached at the main entrance. Turn right here to follow the sandy path to a tarmac track. Go through the gate and pass a car park on the left. Continue ahead and follow the lane past the school and at the end turn right. Cross the railway line then very soon cross the road and bear left for a lane signposted for the Town Centre.

7: Follow this as it zig-zags towards the castle, eventually passing it on the left. Continue, to reach a junction with the high street and turn right. Walk along the high street, then after a pretty cobbled square turn left up a steep footpath (opposite a convenience shop) which leads past the church and back to the car park.

**These directions are for guidance only. The Oakeley Arms can accept no responsibility for any loss, damage or injury resulting from the use of this information. The information quoted is correct at the time of writing. Always take a map with you and be prepared for the weather for turn. Do not venture out in bad weather.